The Busiest Airports in South America

Sao Paulo Airport

In this post, we’re going to look at the busiest airports in South America. From São Paulo to Santiago and Lima to Bogota, the continent has some gigantic cities with large airports, although South America’s skies aren’t as busy as those in some other regions of the world where air travel is a more affordable and more popular way to get around.

For this article, we have used data from 2019 and 2020. Figures are rounded up or down to the nearest 100,000 in all circumstances. Passenger numbers relate to total figures including both domestic and international travel.

The Busiest Airports in South America by Passenger Numbers

  1. São Paulo–Guarulhos International Airport, Brazil

São Paulo, the continent’s largest city, also has the biggest airport in South America in the shape of Governor André Franco Montoro International Airport. It is the second busiest airport in Latin America after Mexico City International and one of two major airports serving the city of São Paulo.

Opened in 1985, the airport consists of three terminals with the newest Terminal 3 being where most international flights depart from and arrive at. São Paulo–Guarulhos handles a large percentage of the inter-continental traffic into and out of Brazil and is often the cheapest destination to fly to if you’re coming to South America from Europe, Asia or Africa.

On a global front though, São Paulo–Guarulhos doesn’t stand out as being exceptionally busy and didn’t even rank amongst the top 50 busiest airports in the world in 2019.

Number of Passengers in 2019: 43.0 million

  1. Bogota El Dorado International Airport, Colombia

El Dorado Airport
Bogota Airport vintage sign via Edgar Zuniga Jr, CC BY-ND 2.0

The second busiest airport in South America is Bogota El Dorado. Located at 2.5 km above sea level, it’s one of the largest airports at altitude and has been serving passengers flying into or out of the Colombian capital since 1959 when it replaced the old Techo International Airport. 

At that point, the coastal city of Barranquilla was actually the main entry/exit point into Colombia but El Dorado has largely held that crown ever since. Today Bogota El Dorado gets more than three times as many air travellers as the next busiest airport in the country (Medellin) and the city’s reinvention as a much safer, modern capital, which ranks among the best options in terms of low cost of living in South America, has played a big role in that. 

The airport is also Latin America’s busiest in terms of cargo and it’s a trend that looks like continuing with Bogota’s location at the heart of the Americas, leaving it well placed to continue to grow into a really significant centre for trade and commerce in the 21st Century. While not one of the cheapest cities to live in Colombia, it has become one of the most popular with people from inside the country and further afield.

Number of Passengers in 2019: 35.0 million

  1. Lima Jorge Chávez International Airport, Peru

Another of the largest international airports in South America is found in the Peruvian capital Lima. Jorge Chávez International Airport has been the arrival point for visitors to Peru since the 1960’s and air traffic has really grown over the past decade from around 10 million passengers in 2010 to over 25 million in 2019. However as with airports all over the world, its figures were slashed dramatically by the impact of the pandemic in 2020 and 2021.

Lima is linked up with just about every major city in Latin America, as well many of the biggest airports in the USA, thanks to LATAM services. Connections to other parts of the world are considerably less but there are also multiple services to the Spanish capital Madrid where many Peruvians have emigrated to.

Number of Passengers in 2019: 25.4 million

  1. Santiago Comodoro Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport, Chile

cost of living in South America

While they are bordering countries on South America’s Pacific Coast, it still takes three and a half hours to fly from Lima, Peru to Santiago de Chile and large distances and often high prices, in part explain why South America’s airports don’t have the kind of passenger numbers of many of their European, North American or Asian counterparts.

Even so, Santiago’s Arturo Merino Benítez International Airport still handled around 25 million passengers per year during normal times with the Lima route the most popular. LATAM also runs the most routes but the emergence of the low-cost Sky Airline in Chile in recent years, a relative rarity in South America, has helped shake things up a bit with lots more affordable connections now between Santiago and other cities in the country and beyond.

Number of Passengers in 2019: 24.6 million

  1. Congonhas-São Paulo Airport, Brazil

Sao Paulo Airport
Congonhas-São Paulo Airport via Gabriel Magacho, CC BY-ND 2.0

São Paulo has two of the busiest airports in Latin America with Congonhas-São Paulo Airport the other major one in the city. It is also the second busiest airport in Brazil having been operational since 1936.

It is quite unique for an airport of its size though in that only domestic services operate in and out of Congonhas. Azul, Gol and LATAM are the main airlines and they offer flights to and from just about every other city in Brazil of any real size.

Not helped by its urban location, just five miles from the centre of São Paulo, the airport does unfortunately have a history of incidents and accidents. That includes Brazil’s worst aviation disaster in 2007 when a plane overran the runway on landing at Congonhas, and crashed into a warehouse killing 199 people in total.

Number of Passengers in 2019: 22.7 million

The top 10 busiest South American airports in 2019 were rounded off by Brasilia (16.7 million), Rio de Janeiro Galeão (13.5 million), Buenos Aires Ministro Pistarini (12.6 million), Buenos Aires Jorge Newbery (12.3 million) and Belo Horizonte (11.2 million).

Top 10 busiest airports in South America in 2020

Airport Country Number of Passengers in 2020
São Paulo–Guarulhos Brazil 20.3 million
Bogota El Dorado Colombia 10.8 million
Santiago Arturo Merino Benítez Chile 8.5 million
Brasília Brazil 7.8 million
Lima Jorge Chávez Peru 7.6 million
São Paulo–Congonhas Brazil 7.0 million
Campinas Viracopos Brazil 6.7 million
Rio de Janeiro Santos Dumont Brazil 5.0 million
Recife/Guararapes–Gilberto Freyre Brazil 4.8 million
Belo Horizonte Brazil 4.8 million

7 of the 10 busiest airports in South America in 2020 were in Brazil, up from 5 the previous year. That’s not a huge surprise given the complications of international travel during the pandemic and airports serving mostly domestic flights within a country the size of Brazil were generally less affected than those with more international traffic during normal times.

The list of busiest airports in South America in 2021 would probably look relatively similar although we don’t have data for that yet. When things eventually return towards normal in terms of international travel, we might expect to see the likes of Lima and the Buenos Aires airports climb a few places again. Buenos Aires Jorge Newbery experienced the biggest drop of the 20 busiest airports in South America in 2020 with an 81% decline in terms of passenger traffic on the previous year.

South America Airports Map

This post on the busiest airports in South America was published in January 2022.

The Busiest Airports in South America

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