Why U.S. Airports Are The Busiest In The World

With all of the travel meltdowns happening in Europe, from passenger caps at London Heathrow to baggage meltdowns and long lines at Amsterdam Schipol, to strikes affecting Frankfurt, Munich and recently Stockholm – you’d think that the greatest demand and passenger volumes were happening in Europe. Those airports are overwhelmed, but looking at full year passenger traffic last year the busiest airports were overwhelmingly in the United States and not a single one in Europe.

Out of the top busiest airports in the world last year, eight of the top 10 were in the United States. In fact, 10 of the top 12 were in the U.S. as well.

These top 20 airports handled 19% of world passenger traffic in 2021 (863 million total passengers), up 43% over 2020 but still 32% below 2019 levels.

Atlanta was the busiest airport in the world by passengers again, followed by Dallas, Denver, Chicago O’Hare and LAX. And LAX is not yet close to back to 2019 passenger levels.

Bear in mind that the U.S. bounced back faster than others, in part because pandemic restrictions were lifted earlier and in part because the U.S. had a big head start on vaccinations.

2021 Rank 2020 Rank Airport % Pax Change
1 2 Atlanta (ATL) 76.4
2 4 Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) 58.7
3 8 Denver (DEN) 74.4
4 13 Chicago O’Hare (ORD) 75.1
5 15 Los Angeles (LAX) 66.8
6 18 Charlotte (CLT) 59.2
7 27 Orlando (MCO) 86.7
8 1 Guangzhou (CAN) -8
9 3 Chengdu (CTU) -1.5
10 22 Las Vegas (LAS} 78.6
11 26 Phoenix (PHX) 77.2
12 38 Miami (MIA) 99.9
13 16 Delhi (DEL) 30.3
14 20 Istanbul (IST) 58.5
15 5 Shenzhen (SZX) -4.1
16 32 Seattle (SEA) 80.4
17 25 Mexico City (MEX) 64
18 6 Chongqing (CKG) 2.4
19 10 Shanghai Hongqiao (SHA) 6.6
20 7 Beijing Capital (PEK) -5.4

Every Chinese airport on the list save Chongqing saw its traffic drop between 2020 and 2021, and every one saw its ranking in the top 20 drop. And that’s before this year’s major Chinese lockdowns in the face of new Covid variants and an immunologically-naive population.

The top 11 airports in the world by number of flights (aircraft movements) were all in the U.S. Many of the world’s busiest airports get there via disproportionately more widebody aircraft with many passengers, while the U.S. is a large domestic market featuring a heavy reliance on narrowbodies (more flights with fewer passengers).

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