I wish there was a good place to watch airplanes land and take off at Hartsfield-Jackson. My kids would love it, but really, I would love it.
It would be noisy and smelly, sure, but also mesmerizing. At 4,700 acres, HJ-AIA delivers the kind of vast vista that Atlanta sorely lacks. We don’t have waterfront views, or any kind of vantage point for the city. What we do have is a massive airport. It's our city's biggest asset, and we should leverage it for cultural, not just economic opportunity.
Whenever I get a glimpse of Hartsfield-Jackson, I'm impressed by the scale of it, and I'm not even an aviation buff. I find it kind of soothing to watch the relentless pace and precision of all those well-choreographed takeoffs and landings, one every few seconds. It’s an enormous operation, the world's busiest, apparently, but it's hard to get a sense of the whole.
I’ve tried to watch planes from the upper floors of the Airport Hilton, restaurants on Virginia Avenue, spots along Main Street in College Park, and from the elevated MARTA train. I often see people pulled over on the side of Loop Road to watch and take photos. These people get the cops called on them.
All these ad hoc observation decks feel risky, like I’m trespassing. And none of them provide a very good view.
We need a public space for this. Not just for “post-security” passengers, the Delta Elite SkyClub members and such, but open to all and free of admission.
This observation deck would be a great place to take my kids, to meet people on their way to or from the airport, to dine, stroll, shop and people-watch. Picture a boardwalk, or promenade. Something as sweeping and grand as the airport itself. Picture the BeltLine, and its re-orienting effect on businesses nearby. Or just picture Frankfurt's recently re-opened "Visitors Terrace."
Yes, lots of major airports have still observation decks, particularly overseas. There's a free, public "Panorama Terrace" at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport and a long, open air public deck at Tokyo's Narita Airport.
Here in the U.S., SFO is planning to build 2 new observation decks: one in a hotel development and one that's entirely open to the public. At DFW, there's a public observation "plaza," with a memorial. Raleigh-Durham has an observation “area” which seems like a good post-911 compromise. It’s more like a park with a playground and coin-operated telescopes to view the overall airport operations. It also features “air traffic communications broadcast via a loudspeaker for the curious public.”
(There’s a nice list of worldwide observation decks here, plus a whole rabbit hole of plane-spotting resources.)
Why do these airports do it? Why invest in an amenity that does not directly move passengers, or benefit airlines?
Airports used to have observation decks.
Here’s Toronto’s Malton Airport around 1960:
in the jet age, when aircraft were even noisier and nastier than they are now, people lined up to watch the action at airports. Anytime I talk to a pilot, they have an origin story about spending time at an observation deck as a child, watching the airplanes for hours. The curious public was not so weary of air travel; airports were not so hostile towards the general public out of security concerns.
So observation decks satisfied an early PR need of the aviation industry, and along the way, became really interesting communal spaces that inspired a generation of pilots, flight attendants, and air traffic controllers. But they also served as a friendly link between the community and the airports themselves.
Currently, the Atlanta Airport doesn't have anything like this, and it has only recently begun thinking in terms of community connectivity. For decades, the surrounding cities have been hunkered down, trying to protect themselves from airport noise and expansion. What if they turned their faces (and storefronts and parks) back towards the runways? When’s the last time the southside celebrated the opening of a new park?
This should happen, and the airport should do it. As a symbolic gesture to the community. As an amenity worthy of a world class airport.
I wish ATL had an observation deck. But more than that, I wish ATL had an observation deck mentality. More open, civic, and fun.