Despite its small size, the UK is a major hub for air travel in Europe with some of the region’s busiest airspace and over 20 airports which serve more than a million passengers per year during normal times. In this post, we’re going to look at the busiest airports in the UK.
The data comes from the information provided by the CAA (the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority). Figures are rounded up or down to the nearest 100,000 in all cases. The five busiest UK airports below are ranked according to 2019 figures, the last year when domestic and international air travel was not severely impacted by the pandemic.
The Busiest Airports in the UK by Passenger Numbers
1. London Heathrow Airport, England
London Heathrow is the biggest airport in the UK by size and by far the busiest in terms of passenger numbers. Indeed it was the busiest airport in Europe in 2019 with 80.9 million passengers in total, more than 1.5 million each week, more than other major international airports such as Paris CDG and Amsterdam Schiphol.
Located to the west of the British capital, Heathrow Airport has five terminals with the newest opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 2008. However it currently only has two runways, not a lot for an airport that handles such high volumes of traffic and the sight of planes queuing up in the skies above to land is common.
A plane lands or takes off every 45 seconds at Heathrow which ensures air traffic controllers are kept busy but the airport has an excellent safety record with no fatal crashes or incidents in the 21st Century.
Number of Passengers in 2019: 80.9 million
2. London Gatwick Airport, England
London and indeed the UK’s second busiest airport is Gatwick. It is located south of the city near the Sussex town of Crawley and is the other major international airport in London that handles long-haul as well as short-haul flights.
It has a north and a south terminal, as well as two runways and offers direct flights to cities such as Dubai, New York, Shanghai and Toronto as well as dozens of European destinations. It is an important hub for the likes of British Airways, easyJet and TUI and throughout its history, Gatwick has helped to ease the strain on Heathrow as the demand for air travel into and out of London has steadily grown.
Passengers in 2019: 46.6 million
3. Manchester Airport, England
Manchester Airport’s three terminals serve as the main entry/exit port for anyone living in or travelling to Northern England. While there are a number of smaller regional airports, Manchester’s size and facilities enable it to serve more long-haul destinations and provide links to less popular European destinations.
A second runway was built around the turn of the century despite significant protests from environmentalists in Cheshire and transport links to the city have improved too with the airport now connected to the Manchester Metrolink offering easier transfers to the city centre and other parts of the city.
Passengers in 2019: 29.4 million
4. London Stansted Airport, England
London’s third major airport is Stansted and it tends to get similar passenger numbers each year to Manchester, despite only having one runway and one terminal. It was privatised in 2013 and has since been owned by the Manchester Airport Holdings Group which also controls East Midlands Airport, the UK’s 14th busiest.
Stansted is linked to London’s Liverpool Street Station by the Stansted Express rail service and it is a popular airport for anyone travelling within Europe, particularly for those based in northern parts of London or the relatively sparsely populated East of England.
In the 21st Century, Stansted has experienced something of a renaissance thanks to the boom in low-cost travel. Ryanair, the world’s biggest low-cost airline, runs more flights out of Stansted than any other airport with the airline operating flights to more than 100 destinations from the Essex airport.
Passengers in 2019: 28.1 million
5. London Luton Airport, England
5th place goes to yet another London airport. Despite its location some 35 miles to the north of Central London and its status as a major town in its own right, Luton International was renamed London Luton in 1990 and passenger traffic has skyrocketed since.
The airport would handle just 2 million passengers per year during the early 1990’s but more than 18 million passed through Luton’s single two-storey terminal in 2019. Like Stansted, it has benefited from the popularity of low-cost travel. It is the main hub for easyJet, the second largest low-cost airline in Europe while Hungary’s Wizz Air also runs a large number of budget flights from Luton to cities across Eastern Europe.
Passengers in 2019: 18.2 million
Top 10 Busiest Airports in the UK
|Number of Passengers in 2019
|Number of Passengers in 2020
The remaining places in the top 10 busiest airports in the UK are filled by the two largest Scottish airports, Belfast International in Northern Ireland and two more regional airports in England.
The top 20 busiest airports in the UK (2019) were completed by Newcastle, London City, Liverpool, East Midlands, Leeds Bradford, Aberdeen, Belfast City, London Southend, Southampton and Cardiff. The only other British airports to handle more than a million passengers that calendar year were Doncaster Sheffield and Exeter.
However 2020 was a considerably quieter year for all the international airports in the UK. The pandemic brought most international and even domestic travel to a standstill and most airports experienced more than 70% drops in passenger numbers. London Gatwick experienced the most rapid decline with a 78% drop on the previous year.
UK Airports Map
This post was published in October 2021.