A half year after Christmas, a small pile of crushed candy canes lie discarded at the base of escalators leading to the concourse trains at the airport that sees the most passengers in the world.
A long, unyielding stain from some harried traveler's latte leaves a trail down the carpet in between concourses A and B at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Dents and scratches from rolling suitcases and baggage carts also line the walls of the 26-year-old airport's halls.
With 86 million travelers passing through the airport each year, signs of dirt and disrepair can be found as frequently as the travel hub's infamous weather delays. As a result, airport general manager Ben DeCosta believes it's time for a makeover and he has launched a campaign to keep his concourses looking new.
Across the U.S., other airports constantly struggle with the task of keeping their terminals clean, especially during the summer months, which they say are the busiest of the year. Airport officials say they are always challenged with the task of keeping clean crowded bathrooms and food courts, which quickly accumulate trash.
Clean restrooms "are a huge deal for airports because after you've been on a plane for four or five hours, maybe you don't want to use the restroom on a plane," said Bob Parker, spokesman for the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
A dirty airport "adds to the frustration overall of having to travel too much for work," said Michelle Johnston, 30, a consultant from New York, after arriving to the Atlanta airport.
DeCosta's push at the Atlanta airport came after he toured some of Asia's newest airports last year and returned surprised, finding trash on Hartsfield-Jackson's concourse floors and scuff marks on walls. He started his airport's makeover campaign in March.
"Hartsfield-Jackson is a pretty clean airport ... but when you compare the airport -- which has many more people who use it -- with these other places, you see the difference," he said. "During the peak times here you can see garbage cans are full, sometimes trash is spilling over. I never saw that once in Asia. The carpet here is old and sometimes it's not as clean as I think it should be."
Airport carpets will be first thing to go
The state of cleanliness at the Atlanta airport has been an issue with some travel experts, such as Terry Trippler of Cheapseats.com. "It needs a good fire hose," Trippler said. "Someone needs to go in there and wash it down. It needs to be cleaned up -- it needs a facelift."
Under the makeover, the airport's carpets will be the first to go as all the concourses will have scuff-resistant tile floors by the end of December. Columns throughout the airport are being protected by steel or other sturdy materials so they won't be susceptible to dents or dings, DeCosta said.
The makeover also will include public service announcements to encourage passengers to throw away trash and all employees will be asked to pick up any trash they find in hallways, even if it's not their job, DeCosta said.
It will cost about $6 million for the new upgrades, which include the new marble floors and walls; new ceilings and windows; and stainless-steel column covers throughout the airport, spokeswoman Felicia Browder said. The airport spends $16 million yearly in cleaning costs.
At some other major U.S. airports, cleanliness and renovations are ongoing, complete with in-house teams that review and replace old or worn-out building materials.
Planning for the long term is beneficial in keeping airports new-looking and clean, said Michael McCarron, spokesman for the San Francisco International Airport, which sees 100,000 passengers each day.
"When you have a building that's up 24/7, you try to keep it clean and maintained with products that wear well and last long but won't go out of style quickly," McCarron said, adding that an airport design team checks to see if terminal materials are getting old or faded and a "very proactive" custodial force inspects restrooms hourly.
The outdoorsy nature of the Denver area prompted Denver International Airport to use sturdy materials like granite or terrazzo tile near airport ticket counters and other heavily trafficked common areas.
'We clean all day, every day'
"We have, over 11 years, had to replace some of the carpet. We get a lot of wear and tear," said airport spokesman Chuck Cannon. "People tromping in the snow and rain and mud, we can only clean them for so long."
At Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, the world's busiest in terms of flights, custodial staff constantly clean restrooms.
"Our approach is: We clean all day, every day," said Wendy Abrams, spokeswoman of O'Hare, which can see more than 250,000 passengers daily during summer months. "Our high passenger volume presents the biggest challenge. Our goal is to maintain the highest standards of cleanliness without disrupting passengers or inconveniencing them in any way."
Passengers said they have been pleased with the results of the Atlanta airport's cleanliness campaign, which airport officials say will become an continuous effort to make Hartsfield-Jackson one of the world's top hubs for travelers.
"It's kept very clean, in view of the large amount of people who move through this hub," said Jerry Reitman, a 63-year-old business lawyer who frequently travels through the Atlanta airport. "I think our airports generally do a good job, in view of all the people that we have. For some reason, they are kept cleaner than other areas of public assembly."
Keeping a clean airport will give passengers a better impression of the city beyond the airport, which some busy travelers never get a chance to see, DeCosta said.
"This is the first place you see when you come to a world-class city and it's the last place you see as you are departing," he said.