Atlanta knocked out as world’s busiest airport as pandemic shuffles 2020 rankings

Apr 23, 2021

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Atlanta has been knocked off its perch as the world’s busiest airport.

The airport finished No. 2 in passenger traffic for 2020, coming in second to Guangzhou, China (CAN), according to an initial count for 2020 from Airports Council International (ACI).

That ends Atlanta’s run of more than two decades as “world’s busiest airport” as measured by passenger traffic. The last time an airport other than Atlanta (ATL) could make such a claim was 1997, when Chicago O’Hare (ORD) held the top spot.

Atlanta’s fall from the top comes as the COVID-19 pandemic upended travel and sent passenger numbers plummeting around the globe.

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The pandemic-related shake-up went beyond just the top spot, dramatically shuffling the rankings of the world’s 10 busiest airports. The changes underscored how the COVID-19 crisis initially moved across the globe from one region to another.

China, where the COVID-19 crisis first emerged in late 2019, was the first to see air travel wind down. On the flipside, China was also one of the earlier markets to experience a recovery in air travel, with flights and passenger numbers picking up earlier in 2020 than in nations where the effects of the pandemic arrived later — and lingered longer.

And, across nearly all parts of the world, domestic and regional travel have recovered faster than international and long-haul travel. China, of course, has a huge population base for domestic air travel.

Those factors help explain how China ended up with seven of the world’s 10 busiest airports in 2020. In 2019, only two of the global top 10 were in China.

Looking back: IATA: 2020 worst year ever, but some recovery likely by 2022

“In most cases, domestic air travel is beginning a modest rebound while international air travel remains depressed because of on-going travel restrictions,” ACI said in a statement announcing the busiest airports. “For example, Hongqiao International Airport in China has moved from 46th position in 2019 to the 9th in 2020, illustrating the uneven nature of the impact of, and recovery from, the pandemic across the world.”

The U.S. accounted for all three of the other top 10 airports in 2020, with Atlanta joined by No. 4 Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) and No. 7 Denver (DEN).

All three are major hubs for U.S. carriers – Delta, American and United, respectively – that leaned heavily on those airports to funnel connecting domestic traffic during the pandemic.

Several other U.S. airports that were among the world’s busiest in 2019 didn’t even place in the top 20 last year: Los Angeles (No. 3 in 2019), Chicago O’Hare (No. 7) and New York-JFK (No. 20).

As for how the list could look next year as the pandemic (hopefully) eases, don’t be surprised if it returns to a more familiar look.

“While the industry recovers, we expect ATL to retake its spot at the top in the coming years,” Patrick Lucas, ACI World’s vice president for economics, said to CNN.

And, Atlanta did remain No. 1 by another metric: aircraft movements. The airport recorded 548,016 takeoffs and landings in 2020, a figure that was down 39.4% year-over-year but was still enough to finish ahead of No. 2 Chicago O’Hare. Dallas/Fort Worth, Denver and Phoenix (PHX) rounded out the top 5 in that category.

Although both passenger count and aircraft movements are legitimate measures for how busy an airport is, it’s the passenger count that’s been the traditional metric used for bestowing the title of world’s busiest.

The full list of the 10 busiest airports by passengers for 2020 is below.

AIRPORT 2019 RANK 2020 PASSENGER COUNT 2019 PASSENGER COUNT PERCENT CHANGE
1. Guangzhou, China (CAN) 11 43,767,558 73,394,810 -40.4%
2. Atlanta (ATL) 1 42,918,685 110,531,300 -61.2%
3. Chengdu, China (CTU) 24 40,741,509 55,858,552 -27.1%
4. Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) 10 39,364,990 75,066,956 -47.6%
5. Shenzhen, China (SZX) 26 37,916,054 52,931,925 -28.4%
6. Beijing Capital (PEK) 2 34,513,827 100,013,642 -65.5%
7. Denver (DEN) 16 33,741,129 69,015,703 -51.5%
8. Kunming, China (KMG) 37 32,990,805 48,076,238 -31.4%
9. Shanghai Hongqiao (SHA) 46 31,165,641 45,637,882 -31.7%
10. Xi’an, China (XIY) 40 31,073,924 47,220,745 -34.2%

Source: Airports Council International

Featured photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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