Every airport can seem like the busiest, especially if you are in a hurry and have the misfortune of arriving during peak traffic hours. But some airports are far busier than others and create both an enormous impact on the economy and challenges for aviation management.
The following looks at those airports, which are the busiest airports in the world as determined by total passenger boarding and total cargo shipments.
The numbers come from Airports Council International (ACI) World, which released the latest figures earlier this year. Overall, about 1.5 billion people used the busiest airports below. The organization estimated that there were 8.8 billion airline passengers in 2018, up 6% from 2017.
The top five busiest airports worldwide for total passenger traffic and their country of origin, according to ACI, include:
- Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport | United States
- Beijing Capital International Airport | China
- Dubai International Airport | Dubai
- Los Angeles International Airport | United States
- Tokyo International (Haneda) Airport | Japan
Busiest Airports in the U.S.
Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport remains the busiest airport in the U.S. and the world in terms of passengers, with more than 107 million passengers going through the airport in 2018. The airport is within a two-hour flight of 80% of the U.S. population.
Three other U.S. airports made the list of the busiest airports in the world, according to Travel and Leisure. Those airports, and the estimated number of passengers who went through them in 2018, are as follows.
- Los Angeles International Airport (87.5 million)
- O’Hare International Airport in Chicago (83.3 million)
- Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (69.1 million)
In terms of the worldwide rankings, LAX ranked 4th, Chicago ranked 6th and Dallas-Fort Worth ranked 15th.
Busiest Airports in Asia
While Atlanta is the world’s busiest airport, Asia has three of the world’s top five busiest airports.
- Beijing Capital International Airport (100.9 million)
- Dubai International Airport (89.9 million)
- Tokyo International Airport (87.7 million)
These airports are experiencing tremendous growth, with the Beijing Airport growing by 5.4% and the Dubai Airport growing at 1% after experiencing years of growth in the double digits.
Busiest Air Cargo Airports
The top air cargo airports moved a staggering 51 million metric tons of cargo. The top three air cargo airports are:
- Hong Kong Airport
- Memphis Airport
- Shanghai Airport
Air cargo is essential to the world’s economy, which depends on the ability to move goods quickly from one area to another. In the U.S. only, air cargo transports over $6 trillion worth of goods, according to the International Air Transport Association. That’s about 35% of total world trade by value.
How They Keep Up with Traveler Flow
The Atlanta airport offers a great example of an airport design that supports a complex transportation and customer service system to maintain traffic flow.
They accomplish this in different ways, according to the airport’s website.
Plane Trains: The underground “Plane Trains” connects all concourses with domestic and international terminals. The system includes 11 trains with four cars each. They operate on a three-mile loop track. On an average day, the Plane Trains carry more than 200,000 passengers.
Parking: There are 30,000 parking spots for domestic flights, which includes everything from covered spots to park-and-ride areas. Each lot also has spots for those with a disability. There are also 3,500 spaces for international flight passengers.
Ground transportation: The Atlanta airport has shuttle buses that offer door-to-door and on-demand pickup service from the airport to metro Atlanta and bordering states. The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) also provides bus and train service between the airport and metro Atlanta.
SkyTrain: The Atlanta airport provides a five-minute SkyTrain ride to the rental car area, Georgia International Convention Center, hotels and office buildings. The SkyTrain has six two-car trains. Each can carry 100 passengers and their baggage.
Concessions: Travel retail is part of the customer service aspect of airport planning and aviation management and a significant revenue generator for airports. The Atlanta airport has a staggering 230,000 square feet devoted to concessions, with 263 outlets through the airport. They include food and beverage (114), retail and convenience (90), service outlets (56), three duty-free stores, a banking center, Georgia Lottery outlets, vending machines, ATMs and spas.
Other, older airports are in the middle of making improvements to the passenger experience. For example, LAX is spending $1.6 million on a new concourse, as well as renovating many terminals and adding two new ones, according to the Los Angeles Times. Chicago is also spending $8.5 billion on a new terminal, according to Travel and Leisure.
Asia’s Aviation Prominence Growing
In the airports in Asia, governments are expanding and renovating the current airports. For example, Haneda Airport in Tokyo is adding nearly 40,000 international flight slots before 2021. In Dubai, the runways are being upgraded to handle the enormous amounts of air traffic. In addition, several Persian Gulf air carriers are upping the ante regarding customer service and flight comfort.
In China, the country has built an entirely new airport. The $12 billion Beijing Daxing International Airport is expected to handle 100 million passengers a year, according to the Washington Post. The new airport will alleviate issues at Beijing Capital International Airport, which has been at capacity for years and is experiencing as many as 400 delays every year.
Nicknamed “The Star,” the new airport will have five concourses and five traditional Chinese gardens, among many other amenities.
What Is All This Worth for the Economy?
All the effort put into ensuring good traffic flow and top-shelf customer service are worthwhile. Aviation’s economic impact is evident at a large scale, but busy airports also make an enormous contribution to the local economy.
LAX officials estimated in 2007 that every international flight arriving in Los Angeles is worth $623 million in economic activity, including “employment, commercial and operational activities associated with the flight, its passengers and its cargo.”
The Atlanta airport calls itself the “economic jewel of Georgia,” estimating that it generates $34.8 billion in economic impact for metro Atlanta.