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What’s the World’s Busiest Airport? Atlanta, Yet Again

Jay Shabat

April 6th, 2023

Delta and Southwest concourses at the Atlanta airport

Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was, once again, the busiest airport worldwide last year. That’s according to the latest rankings just published by Airports Council International (ACI).

In a year marked by rapid recovery from the Covid pandemic, Atlanta’s passenger volumes reached 93.7 million, up 24 percent from 2021. Still, this was well shy of the nearly 111 million passengers that the airport handled in 2019. Domestic traffic dropped from about 98 million passengers in 2019 to about 84 million last year. International traffic, accounting for a much smaller portion of Atlanta’s total, decreased from roughly 13 million passengers to 10 million.

Atlanta has long held the title of world’s busiest airport, claiming it from Chicago O’Hare in 1998. Only during Covid-disrupted 2020 did it briefly lose top billing, falling to number two behind Guangzhou’s Baiyun International Airport. Georgia’s capital, to be clear, is hardly the world’s largest airline market. Others like London, New York, Paris, and Tokyo are all much larger. But airline passenger volumes in these cities are spread across multiple airports — in London’s case six main airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, City, and Southend). Dallas-Fort Worth, the world’s second busiest airport last year, handled 73.4 million passengers, some 20 million less than Atlanta. But the Dallas-Fort Worth metro is also served by Dallas Love Field, a Southwest Airlines stronghold that last year welcomed another 16 million passengers.  

New York City is the largest airline market in the U.S. In 2019, JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports handled a combined 140 million passengers, or about 30 million more than Atlanta that year. But none of the three New York airports individually rank in the top ten. After Atlanta and Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver (another single-airport market) was the third busiest airport last year, followed by Chicago O’Hare (which shares traffic with Chicago Midway). Only after O’Hare does a non-U.S. airport enter ACI’s rankings: Dubai with 66 million passengers last year. Other non-U.S. airports in the top ten include Istanbul, London Heathrow, and Paris Charles de Gaulle. Dubai, incidentally, is the world’s busiest airport if you count just international traffic — nearly 90 percent of Atlanta’s traffic is domestic.

Why is Atlanta’s airport so busy? The metro area, after all, is home to about 6 million people, fewer than seven other U.S. metros, based on the 2020 Census. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia all have more people. Atlanta, though, benefits from a strong home airline — Delta — favorable geography to capture many busy traffic flows, relatively low airport costs, a terminal layout conducive to facilitating flight connections, limited competition from other hubs, and the presence of many medium-sized cities throughout the southeast which need a big regional hub to access the rest of the world. Atlanta also has a growing economy with lots of corporate traffic — companies headquartered in the city include Coca-Cola, Home Depot, and UPS.

In 2022, Delta and its regional partners captured close to 80 percent of Atlanta’s passenger volumes. Southwest Airlines, which purchased Atlanta-focused AirTran in 2011, was second last year with an 8 percent share. Based on departing seats scheduled from the airport, according to Diio by Cirium, Atlanta’s busiest routes were to Orlando and Fort Lauderdale, underscoring the airport’s role as a gateway to Florida. Other busy routes include New York LaGuardia, Tampa, Miami, and Dallas-Fort Worth. Atlanta’s busiest international routes are Amsterdam, Cancun, and Paris. The two European cities are hubs for Delta, which operates a transatlantic joint venture with Air France-KLM.  

ACI said the total number of passengers handled at airports worldwide was nearly 7 billion last year, up more than 50 percent from 2021 but still down more than 25 percent from 2019. (This 7 billion figure counts both people arriving and people departing). China’s heavily depressed market prevented a more robust recovery, but its reopening raises hopes for the world getting closer to 2019 levels of traffic this year. There were only two airports among last year’s top ten, by the way, that were busier in 2022 than they were in 2019. One was Denver, which grew slightly over its pre-pandemic high. The other was Istanbul, which was a stunning 23 percent busier.  

ACI also published its busiest airports by number of flight departures rather than passenger volumes and here too, Atlanta was number one, with Chicago O’Hare right behind. As for cargo, Hong Kong and Memphis (home to FedEx) took the top two spots by tonnage.

Jay Shabat

April 6th, 2023

Tags: Asia-Pacific, Europe, Middle East, North America

Photo credit: Delta and Southwest concourses at the Atlanta airport Flickr / Sean Davis

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