As a business traveler who flies 100,000 miles a year on Delta Air Lines, Jay Spencer is used to flying through the world’s busiest hub at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
As a result, he’s familiar with the airport’s infamous delays — anything, he says, lasting from 15 minutes to three hours.
‘‘They say you don’t go to heaven or hell without flying through Atlanta,’’ said the 45-year-old real estate investor from Salt Lake City.
Thanks to a new 9,000-foot runway scheduled to open in Atlanta on May 27, the airport’s officials are pledging to cut those delays in half, which also could mean fewer and shorter delays throughout the entire air transportation network in the United States and possibly around the world.
That’s because no other airport in the world handles more passengers. Nearly 86 million people pass through the Atlanta airport each year on more than 980,000 flights — one taking off or landing about every 30 seconds. They fly direct to 157 cities in the U.S. and 65 others in 43 different countries.
‘‘You take an airplane delay at Hartsfield — 20 minutes — now it’s delayed at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago,’’ said Terry Trippler, an airline industry expert for Cheapseats.com. ‘‘If an airline cancels a flight, there’s no place to put the people — you can’t move them to another flight because those flights are filled.’’
The runway is part of a major overhaul at the airport that also includes the tallest air traffic control tower in North America, standing at 398 feet, and an ‘‘end-around’’ taxiway — the first of its kind in the country — that will help keep arriving flights from being delayed by having to wait to cross busy runways before reaching their gates.
The airport’s new fifth runway and a new runway monitor system will help it bring in three different streams of planes at the same time, even during foul weather. The reduced delays should reduce operating costs for airlines by an estimated total of $5 million a week, said Ben DeCosta, the airport’s general manager.
‘‘If you’re flying in Atlanta, your plane won’t be asked to delay,’’ DeCosta said. ‘‘You’ll be brought in because we’ll have room for you.’’
The airline set to benefit the most is Delta Air Lines, which uses airport as its primary hub and is looking any savings it can get as it works to pull out of bankruptcy. Delta and its subsidiaries account for nearly three out of every four flights at Hartsfield-Jackson.
Air traffic has gotten so congested at the Atlanta airport that a quarter of all scheduled flights are delayed — ranking fourth worst among the nation’s major airports, according to federal Bureau of Transportation statistics. And the average delay in Atlanta runs 17 minutes, said airport spokeswoman Felicia Browder.
While the statistics show that most of the delays are blamed on bad weather, the smallest storms can cause major delays.
With the goal of curbing delays, the airport spent five years and $1.284 billion to build its new runway, the most expensive ever built in the United States. The runway’s costs are mainly paid for through airport passenger fees included in the ticket price of every flight that travels through the airport along with $179 million from the federal government.
To celebrate the runway’s opening, the airport is throwing a party with country music bands and a 5K race on the runway itself — all before planes start landing on it, of course.
‘‘We can build runways and we should. But 50 percent of the benefit of the runway is totally negated by the fact we have an air traffic control system that’s still back in the 1970s,’’ said Mike Boyd, an airline industry consultant based in Evergreen, Colo.
Boyd said larger problems are leading to air travel delays, and they are beyond one airport’s reach. He said upgrading the U.S. air traffic control system’s equipment and getting more air traffic controllers in airport towers would have a much bigger impact.
And you still can’t ignore the weather. With Atlanta’s fifth runway, airlines will receive ‘‘a little more runway space — but you can’t control the weather,’’ said Theresa Downs, 59, of Tacoma, Wash., who was traveling through Atlanta earlier this month.
The runway’s high price tag included $390 million to acquire 920 acres for it, leveling entire office parks, neighborhoods and churches in the process. Another $160 million was spent on creating an 18-lane bridge and tunnel because the new runway intersects Interstate 285, the highway that loops around Atlanta’s perimeter. It took another $350 million just to flatten the land for the runway, DeCosta said.