Jetsetters might be more familiar with ORD, LAX, FCO, or CAN, but one unassuming airport in the southern United States is the busiest in the world: ATL. In normal times, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International welcomes about 100 million passengers per year. But Meenakshi Nieto knows that modern times are anything but normal. As director of planning and development, she’s tasked with future-proofing the global hub to protect the 300,000 passengers who usually through ATL each day.
The very structure of Hartsfield-Jackson makes its COVID-19 protocols especially important in reducing the spread of coronavirus. The Georgia facility serves as a hub for travelers going to all parts of the United States and international locations like Canada, Mexico, France, South Korea, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. “We needed to have a strong response to restore passenger confidence because an outbreak could impact several regions at once while also damaging our local economy,” Nieto says. With about 63,000 employees, Hartsfield-Jackson is its state’s biggest employer.
Nieto came to ATL in December of 2019. In January, she and her colleagues were hearing about a novel virus that was already plaguing China. By March, less than three months after she arrived, the once bustling Hartsfield-Jackson concourses were nearly empty. ATL’s former general manager John Selden (succeeded by Balram “B” Bheodari) estimated revenues had dropped 60 percent with daily flights down from 2,600 to 1,200.
Protecting passengers, restoring confidence, and recapturing business would require fast thinking and strong partnership. Nieto took her inspiration from an unusual source—the Siberian cranes she saw flying over her head in India when she was just six years old. The snowy white birds wintered at Chilka Lake, Asia’s largest brackish lagoon, located in Odisha, and observing their migratory patterns helped the precocious Nieto understand that everything in the world is connected. “What we do in one part of the world impacts everything that passes through on its way somewhere else,” she says.
Nieto also knows a thing or two about travel and adaptation. Growing up in a military family took her to 20 states in India and the adjoining countries—Bhutan, Burma, and Nepal—gave her an appreciation for diversity. Along the way, she picked up six languages and a passion for teamwork and problem solving. Nieto came to the United States to study architecture, and over the past 23 years, she’s worked at high levels in city planning, land use, and aviation with an emphasis on built environment, urban design, environmental policy, and climate change.
These are the skills and experiences Nieto leveraged when helping Hartsfield-Jackson craft its COVID response. Due to the presence of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (also located in Atlanta), ATL served as one of the first six airports designated as a point of entry with required health screenings. The airport quickly coordinated the installation of floor markers and plexiglass dividers at the security screening checkpoints and installed more than 450 touchless sanitizer dispensers throughout the 5.2 million square feet of concourses and terminal space. Then, her team implemented credential authentication technology to complete touchless ID checks in real time.
With these initial steps in place and the public trust restored, Nieto turned her attention to future-proofing the airport by integrating advanced technologies into the built environment. Hartsfield-Jackson was one of the first airports to use a wireless technology system to monitor, track, and manage sanitizing and disinfecting. The KOLO system from GP PRO harnesses a cloud-based network of sensors to send real-time alerts to environmental services professionals via mobile devices, alerting them when sanitizers or other products need to be restocked. ATL uses nearly 500 dispensers and more than 8,000 gallons of sanitizer per year. KOLO’s agile dashboard also helps Nieto and her counterparts around the world automate, track, and monitor other tasks. Additionally, ATL is now using UVC light in the HVAC system and high-density electrostatic spraying to sterilize high-touch and high-use spaces.
As travel resumes, Nieto is thinking about more substantial ways she can help ATL prepare for whatever lies ahead. “Airport planners always try to look into a crystal ball, but that ball is really fuzzy today,” she says, adding that current realities make planning and collaboration more important than ever before. She’s working behind the scenes to transform the airport from analogic to digital ecosystem by integrating the Internet of things (IoT) and predictive analysis. She is also using a triple prong approach of technology, wellbeing, and collaboration to give passengers a fully touchless journey that will take them from the curb to their gate with smart and efficient security screening, virtual queuing, smart restroom technology, and frictionless processing at parking and concessions.
Nieto is also updating key components in the concourses. “COVID will not be the last biological pathogen we have to battle, and we need to have intelligent buildings that become our secret weapon in the fight,” she says. ATL is already using UVC light to kill microbes in its HVAC system, and its teams are looking at bipolar ionization, NanoSeptic coatings, and other antimicrobial technologies.
In April of 2021, after 22 consecutive years as the busiest airport in the world, ATL ceded its number one ranking to China’s Guangzhou Baiyun International due to the impact of the pandemic. Hartsfield-Jackson saw passenger totals drop from 110 million to 43 million. However, this only lasted a few months before ATL regained its superlative status. Nieto also has positioned ATL to strongly rebound from any future challenges—no matter what, passengers coming through the important hub can trust that the director’s team is hard at work to keep them safe as they travel to their destination.