How Atlanta Came To Own The World's Busiest Airport

Mar 14, 2019

State lawmakers are debating a bill to seize control of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport from the city of Atlanta.

It generates more than $30 billion in annual economic impact for the city, and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has called the potential seizure an “act of war.”

Atlanta came to own the airport nearly a century ago.


Before it was an airport, the air field was orginally an auto racetrack built in 1909 by Coca-Cola company founder Asa Candler.

Candler opened the speedway in 1909.
Credit Courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library

However, the speedway turned out not to be that lucrative and was shuttered after only one season.

So the next year, Candler began hosting air shows at the field. 

Fifteen years later, city alderman William Hartsfield pursued the idea of converting the speedway into the city’s official airport.

He worked with Mayor Walter Sims to broker a 5-year lease on the property.

On September 15, 1926, flights began taking off and landing at the airport that became known as Candler Field.

Three years later, the city fully took control of the airport, and William Hartsfield would go on to be the Atlanta’s longest serving mayor.

Delta Air Lines first began flying to Atlanta in 1930 with a route from Birmingham. About a decade later, the company moved its headquarters to the city from Louisiana. Delta is the airport's oldest continuous tenant of the airport.

The airport’s claim to fame as one of the nation’s busiest airports was first recognized in 1942 after a record 1,700 takeoffs and landings in a single day.

The city commemorated Hartsfield by naming the airport after him after his death in 1971.

More than 2,500 flights take off or land at the airport each day.
Credit Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

It wasn’t until 2003 that the airport got its current name after the death of the city’s first African American mayor, Maynard Jackson.

The airport now carries the legacy of two Atlanta mayors, Hartsfield and Jackson.

Today, Atlanta’s airport serves more than a 100 million passengers a year.