Europe is cautiously starting to open up to travel again with summer 2021 certainly promising to be busier than summer 2020. That may even mean we’ll start seeing busy airports once more as people jet off for summer breaks. In this post, we’re going to look at the biggest and busiest airports in Europe.
The passenger figures used for the top five rankings are from 2019, the last time air travel in Europe was “normal”. The busiest European airport in 2020 was actually the new Istanbul Airport (23.4 million passengers) which only ranked 6th in 2019. The passenger numbers data comes from this source and is rounded up or down to the nearest 100,000.
The Five Busiest Airports in Europe
1. London Heathrow Airport, UK
Top of the list of busiest airports in Europe is Heathrow Airport, the largest of several airports serving London – one of the world’s major hubs for air travel.
Located to the west of the British capital, Heathrow is the main airport for long-haul arrivals into the UK but also has national and regional connections. Its passenger numbers are extraordinary given there are only two runways, considerably less than many other major international airports. Queues of planes waiting to land are a common sight in the skies around Heathrow as a result.
A third runway has recently been approved again after years of legal wrangling which will further expand the airport’s capacity. Heathrow has five terminals with the latest addition opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 2008. The new Terminal 5 has helped boost the airport’s reputation and popularity with passengers and is where you’ll most likely fly from if you travel with British Airways.
Passengers in 2019: 80.9 million
2. Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, France
In terms of size, Paris Charles de Gaulle is the biggest airport in Europe with a huge total area of 32.37 km². That’s comparable to that of a small city and almost three times larger than the land area of London Heathrow.
Located 30 km northwest of central Paris, there is more space around the airport which has enabled it to expand in a more natural way as the demand for air travel has grown over the years. Prior to the pandemic, you could fly directly to more countries from Paris CDG (over 100) than any other airport in the world.
Having first opened in 1974, the airport is not even 50 years old, but has quickly replaced the older Orly and Le Bourget airports as the main entry port into Paris. Charles de Gaulle has a relatively good safety record but was at the centre of one of the biggest news stories of the year 2000 when a Concorde flight to New York crashed on take-off, tragically killing everyone on board and four people on the ground. The incident was a major factor in the subsequent retirement of the supersonic Concorde airliners three years later.
Passengers in 2019: 76.2 million
3. Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, Netherlands
While the Netherlands is a relatively small country, it tends to punch above its weight on the international stage in all kinds of ways and the success of Amsterdam Airport Schiphol has played a major role in ensuring that is the case.
As well as being one of Europe’s busiest and biggest airports, Amsterdam has also proved very popular with travellers and is often ranked amongst the best airports in the world. It’s always clean and easy to move around and has plenty of pleasant quirks with lots of activities that kids will enjoy and there’s even a small museum.
There are certainly far worse places to end up with a long layover and Amsterdam does serve as a popular place to transfer for long-haul passengers. It also clearly caters to the large number of tourists that head to the Dutch city each year, all of which added up to more than 70 million passengers in 2019, the equivalent of around 200,000 every single day.
Passengers in 2019: 71.7 million
4. Frankfurt am Main Airport, Germany
While it is only the 5th largest city in Germany, Frankfurt am Main is home to the biggest airport in the country and the 4th busiest in Europe. It serves as the main gateway to the heavily populated Rhine-Main metropolitan area and caters to millions of business travellers each year heading to Frankfurt, one of the world’s major financial centres.
Frankfurt am Main Airport witnessed the biggest drop in air traffic in 2020 of any of the top five busiest airports in Europe. Just 18.8 million passengers used the airport last year compared to 70.6 million in 2019 – a dramatic reduction highlighting what an enormous impact the pandemic has had on air travel.
Indeed Covid-19 came at a very bad time for Frankfurt Airport with a new Terminal 3 under construction on the site of an old US military base, designed to handle the anticipated increase in demand for air travel. It was initially planned that sections of the new terminal would open to the public in 2021 but that has been put back five years until 2026 due to the impact of the pandemic.
Passengers in 2019: 70.6 million
5. Adolfo Suárez Madrid–Barajas Airport, Spain
In at number five in 2019 is Madrid’s Barajas Airport which serves the Spanish capital. It just beat Barcelona’s El Prat Airport – Europe’s sixth busiest.
Madrid is a major port of entry for South and Central Americans heading to Europe so there are lots of long-haul connections to the Americas. It also has many national services with connections to all the major Spanish islands and cities and Madrid is very much at the heart of the Spanish transport network, not just in a geographical sense.
Like Paris CDG, the airport also covers a very large area and has a huge capacity to cope with any future increases in demand. The vast new Terminal 4 alone could cope with 70 million passengers per year and serves as the main hub for Iberia which operates roughly 25% of the flights in and out of Madrid.
Passengers in 2019: 61.7 million
Top 10 busiest airports in Europe – ranked by 2020 passengers
|Airport||Passengers (2020)||Passengers (2019)|
|Istanbul||23.4 million||52.0 million|
|Paris CDG||22.3 million||76.2 million|
|London Heathrow||22.1 million||80.1 million|
|Amsterdam Schiphol||20.9 million||71.7 million|
|Moscow Sheremetyevo||19.6 million||49.4 million|
|Frankfurt||18.8 million||70.6 million|
|Madrid-Barajas||17.1 million||61.7 million|
|Moscow Domodedovo||16.4 million||28.3 million|
|Barcelona-El Prat||12.7 million||52.7 million|
|Moscow Vnukovo||12.6 million||24.0 million|
The list of busiest airports in Europe for 2020 looks somewhat different with huge drops in passenger numbers for virtually every single airport in the continent. Of Europe’s 100 busiest airports, only one had more travellers in 2020 when compared to the previous year.
That was Russia’s Anapa Airport and one of the most notable things when comparing 2020 to 2019 data, was that Russian air traffic was far less reduced when compared to other parts of the continent. Differing policies for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic mean three Moscow airports made the top 10 busiest airports in Europe in 2020 whereas only one Russian airport was even in the top 20 in 2019.
At the top of the list, the brand new Istanbul Airport handled the most passengers in 2020. Once fully completed, it will have the capacity to handle 200 million passengers per year. It is bidding to compete with major Middle East airports such as Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi for highly-sought after inter-continental routes. Lying on the European side of Istanbul, once fully operational it has the potential to be Europe’s busiest airport for many years to come.
This article was published in July 2021.