International and business may be the slowest segments of air travel to recover from the pandemic, but both are critical for fostering future growth at the Atlanta airport and the regional economy it supports, outgoing General Manager John Selden said Thursday.
Mr. Selden, leaving after nearly three years with Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, offered some words of hope during a conversation with the World Affairs Council of Atlanta.
The airport is operating at about half capacity this month, which should restore its status as one of the busiest in the world. In April, he expects demand to reach 60-70 percent of pre-COVID levels. Even with all the uncertainty around business travel, 2022 looks to be a year of “full recovery” led by leisure travelers, he said. More than 2,000 flights left the airport last Sunday.
Mr. Selden was set to depart a few days later for Saudi Arabia to take up a new gig leading the airport development company at Neom, a future-focused city being built from the ground up on the Red Sea.
Early in the talk, he mentioned excitement at joining an airport that was “not just domestic” but focused on linking that part of Saudi Arabia with the world. The implication was that Atlanta, for all its talk of becoming a global hub, was still lagging when it comes to international travelers, even before the pandemic.
That’s certainly true compared to Mr. Selden’s previous post: John F. Kennedy International Airport more than half of its traffic from passengers leaving from or arriving in the United States (34.3 million out of a total 62.6 million in 2019).
Even in 2019, seven years after a new international terminal opened to accommodate rising demand, Atlanta remained mostly a transfer hub. More than two-thirds of those who passed through the airport were headed somewhere else, and only about 11.4 percent were international passengers. That’s up only about a half a percentage point from the overall proportion the year after the terminal opened.
Mr. Selden later clarified, however, that he sees this as an area of promise for the Atlanta airport, echoing sentiments voiced earlier in his tenure.
“We are a tremendous domestic airport, but we are not the International hub like I came from, and we could be, because we have the capacity, we have the runway lengths, we have great connectivity the rest of the United States and even to Canada — better than Kennedy or LAX,” Mr. Selden said.
That’s why he viewed it as important to connect with the World Affairs Council and the broader international community.
“Domestically we’re incredibly strong between Delta and Southwest and JetBlue and United and American; it’s that international piece that we really have to focus on here to really grow Atlanta and our business and tourism industry here,” he said.
Though freighters have flocked to Atlanta during the pandemic, the airport has seen little in the way of new international passenger carriers in recent years other than Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines, which both arrived in 2016. Qatar is set to restart Atlanta flights in June. Turkish restarted its flights in 2020 after a brief pandemic hiatus.
Reviving international travel globally will largely depend on the extent to which countries can agree on a common digital credential for validating vaccinations, a project companies and governments are working in partnership with the International Air Transport Association, or IATA.
The hodgepodge of quarantine, lockdown and testing requirements make it challenging even to transfer flights internationally.
“It’s very difficult, and we have to make it like it was: simple,” Mr. Selden said.
In Atlanta, he said, leisure and domestic travelers are leading the recovery, and the post-COVID scope of the decline in business travel is “undetermined.”
He recalled the post-9/11 dip, when companies adapted with the use of video conferencing technologies. While Zoom and other platforms have improved and democratized that experience, Mr. Selden foresees businesspeople taking to the skies again.
“This is a little bit more intimate, where you can have an introductory business meeting, but I still think you’re going to need that human touch,” he said.
His next job depends on that reality. Neom is predicated on creating a global business destination that boasts its own set of laws and is linked to the world by a new 50-million passenger airport. The city, which occupies an area as large as Denmark but claims its urban areas will be car-less and fully walkable, is to be oriented along an urban spine called The Line, with disparate districts linked by underground hyperloop transit technology. On the Red Sea side will be a 3-million-passenger airport that will also be under his authority.
A former Navy and commercial pilot, Mr. Selden said Neom presented an opportunity unique in his 30 years in aviation.
“My entire career, even in the Navy, I was always involved in somebody else’s infrastructure that we were trying to either upgrade or fix. This will the first time I get to work on something from the ground up.”
Harsfield-Jackson announced April 2 that Balram Bheodari will serve as interim general manager.
Learn more about the World Affairs Council of Atlanta at www.wacatlanta.org.