The Busiest Airports in the World

girl in an airport

Despite growing concerns about the impact of air travel on climate change, the 2010’s was a decade which continued to see growing numbers of people travelling by air. In this post we’re going to look at the busiest airports in the world according to the 2019 Airport Traffic Report.

All of these airports handled hundreds of thousands of passengers every single day before international travel virtually ground to a halt with the start the pandemic in 2020.

The World’s Busiest Airports by Passenger Numbers – The Top 10

1. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, USA

It will come as a surprise to many that the world’s busiest airport isn’t in New York, London, Shanghai or another global megacity, but in the USA’s 37th most populous city. While Atlanta’s metropolitan area is sprawling, it still only ranks as the 9th largest in the US, which begs the question why is Atlanta Airport so busy?

There are a few main factors which have contributed to Atlanta being the busiest airport, not just in 2019, but throughout all of the 21st Century. It is the home hub of Delta Airlines – one of the world’s largest, which is certainly a key reason. Its status as the only major airport in the state of Georgia is another, as is its location within a two hour flight of most major US cities – making it a common layover stop for many travellers. A bit like Miami, its southerly location also contributes to it being a natural connection for travel into the US from Central or South America or the Caribbean.

Number of Passengers in 2019: 110.5 million

2. Beijing Capital International Airport, China

Beijing Airport
Beijing Capital Airport via AcidBomber, CC BY 3.0

The only other airport in the world with more than 100 million passengers per year is Beijing Capital International Airport. Opened in 1958, it has been transporting travellers to and from the Chinese capital since the first decade of the People’s Republic and has seen its passenger numbers rise dramatically since the turn of the century with China’s rapid economic growth leading to a new generation of business travellers and tourists, both domestic and from overseas.

However with capacity stretched to the very limit, the decision was formally made to construct a new supersized airport to serve the city in 2013. Beijing Daxing International Airport opened its doors in September 2019 as the biggest airport in the world with a total land area stretching over 18 square miles. With most major airlines moving their operations to the new airport, it’s likely to quickly rise up the rankings throughout the 2020’s and may ultimately challenge Atlanta for the number one spot while Beijing Capital will move in the opposite direction very quickly.

Number of Passengers in 2019: 100 million

3. Los Angeles International Airport, USA

Over to California we go next and Los Angeles International, more commonly referred to as LAX. It actually jumped up a position in 2019 from 4th in 2018 with around 88 million passengers passing through. As by far the biggest airport on the West Coast of the United States, it’s a major gateway for trans-pacific travel and the initial entry port for many visitors to the country.

Although located nearly 20 miles southwest of downtown Los Angeles, the airport is pretty well situated for many visitors to the city given its coastal location close to Venice Beach and Santa Monica, as well as the enormous SoFi Stadium, the new home of the city’s two NFL teams.

If you’ve ever wondered where the X in LAX came from, there is no real symbolism or meaning behind it. The growth of the aviation industry in the 1940’s led to airports having to use three letter rather than two letter identifiers so LA became LAX.

Number of Passengers in 2019: 88.1 million

4. Dubai International Airport, UAE

Dubai Airport at 3am
Dubai Airport via joiseyshowaa, CC BY-SA 2.0

Dubai International is the biggest airline hub in the Middle East with over 86 million passengers in 2019. That’s made up of a mix of business travellers, tourists and in many cases travellers merely connecting to other flights. It is the main hub of Emirates, one of the world’s best airlines and Terminal 3 at Dubai International Airport is essentially reserved purely for Emirates flights which quite literally come in from all four corners of the world.

What sets Dubai apart from all of the other airports in the top ten, is that its passenger figures come almost solely from international travel. The UAE is a small country and while there are a handful of flights each week to Abu Dhabi (less than 100 miles away!), purely in terms of international travel, Dubai is the world’s busiest airport, beating London Heathrow into 2nd place. In fact, were we to list the world’s busiest airports by international passengers, there wouldn’t be a US airport that even makes the top 15.

Number of Passengers in 2019: 86.4 million

5. Tokyo International (Haneda) Airport, Japan

We head to the Far East for number five and Tokyo Haneda Airport. One of the world’s biggest capital cities, it’s no surprise to see Tokyo feature and combined with the traffic which passes through Narita International Airport, the city is the third busiest in the world for air travel after London and New York.

International travellers to Japan are more likely to arrive into Narita, which is located some 60 km east of the centre of Tokyo. However overall it’s Haneda, which is located in Tokyo Bay closer to the heart of the city, which has higher annual passenger figures. Recent upgrades and improvements in preparation for what was scheduled to be the 2020 Tokyo Olympics saw it named the world’s second best airport after Singapore.

Number of Passengers in 2019: 85.5 million

The top ten busiest airports in the world by passengers are rounded off by:

6. Chicago O’Hare International Airport, USA (84.4 million)

7. London Heathrow Airport, UK (80.9 million)

8. Shanghai Pudong International Airport, China (76.2 million)

9. Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, France (76.2 million)

10. Dallas/Ft Worth International Airport, USA (75.1 million)

According to CNN, passenger traffic at the world’s 20 busiest airports grew by 1.7% in 2019 before a massive decline in 2020 for obvious reasons. While once the COVID-19 pandemic passes, we should see a significant rise again, it may be many years before we see anything close to a repeat of the 2019 figures.

Incidentally, in 2019 Chicago’s O’Hare Airport was the busiest airport in the world by flights with more take-offs and landings than any other despite only ranking 6th on the passenger list.

The Busiest Airport in Every Continent

Continent Busiest Airport Passengers in 2019
North America Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta 110.5 million
South America São Paulo Guarulhos 43 million
Europe London Heathrow 80.9 million
Africa Johannesburg 21.7 million
Asia Beijing Capital 100 million
Oceania Sydney 44.4 million

There are major air hubs on each continent. The busiest airport in Europe is London Heathrow although Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt run it pretty close. Johannesburg’s O. R. Tambo International is the busiest airport in Africa, just ahead of Cairo.

Meanwhile in South America, São Paulo sees the highest volume of air travellers with both Guarulhos and Congonhas airports among the five busiest in South America. Sydney just pips Melbourne as the busiest in Oceania.

World Airports Map

This post was published in March 2021.

Featured image via Jan Wasek (original image no longer active on Wunderstock)

The Busiest Airports in the World

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