Calling Atlanta the capital of the southern United States and praising city leaders, Delta CEO Richard Anderson speaks on the "virtuous relationship" between the world's largest airline and the world's busiest airport.

With hundreds looking on, a construction crane on April 13 slowly hoisted the last steel beam into place at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport‘s new international terminal.

The white beam carried written messages of goodwill from city, state and airport officials as well as others who witnessed the “topping out” ceremony marking the completion of the 1.2 million-square-foot building’s substructure.

“The ‘crown jewel’ of GA ec dev,” read a shorthand message from Ken Stewart, Georgia‘s economic development commissioner, who praised the airport’s international “access” as an integral tool for recruiting global companies.

Construction crews will soon begin framing walls and filling out the interior of the terminal, which airport General Manager Ben DeCosta said is on schedule for its target completion date in 2012. Thousands of employees from 225 companies have worked on the project so far.

The terminal will allow the world’s busiest airport to handle a projected increase in international travelers from 9 million last year to 13 million by 2015. Its 12 gates will connect to the airport’s automated people mover train with 28 gates in Concourse E to form a 40-gate international travel complex.

“The most important thing I can say about this terminal is that it represents a forward-thinking investment in international travel in Atlanta,” said Mr. DeCosta, who paused his remarks at times to avoid being drowned out by the roar of departing jets.

About $750 million has been spent on the Maynard H. Jackson International Terminal to date, an average of about $1 million per day, said Dan Molloy, Hartsfield’s assistant general manager for planning and development. That’s just over half the estimated cost of nearly $1.4 billion. Airport officials have said that they will soon sell bonds to finance the remainder of the construction, a process they had hoped to complete by late last year.

The cost of the terminal has been a sore spot at times between Delta Air Lines Inc. and the airport. The support of Delta, by far Hartfield’s largest tenant occupying as much as 70 percent of gate space, has been crucial to the expansion plans. With its 30-year lease set to expire this year, the airline in December negotiated a seven-year renewal with the City of Atlanta, which operates the airport.

Delta CEO Richard Anderson used his remarks at the ceremony to praise the city’s leadership and highlight what he called a “virtuous relationship” between world’s largest airline and the airport. Calling Atlanta the “capital of the southern United States,” he said Atlantans should take pride in their city’s accomplishments.

“There aren’t really any other cities that are doing what we’re doing today,” Mr. Anderson said, noting that the “topping off” event was taking place just before the ribbon-cutting at the new Duluth headquarters of NCR Corp., a Fortune 200 company.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed said the event bodes well for the airport’s continued growth as a catalyst for the city’s development.

“If there was any doubt about Atlanta’s condition or future, this terminal is a clear message that Atlanta’s future is bright and strong,” Mr. Reed said.

Mr. Stewart, the state’s economic development commissioner, said the terminal will enhance the airport, which is already recognized as a major advantage by the 2,500 international companies from 53 countries that have operations in Georgia.

“Travelers want direct flights, they want quick access, and they can get all that right here,” Mr. Stewart said.

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...