With most airports being almost empty these days, why not take a look at the data on the busiest airports in the world for 2019, to remind ourselves of better times, when everyone was out exploring our beautiful world. Traveling is like living—it’s all about the journey. That’s why here at Flytrippers, we encourage you to enjoy every part of it, including time spent at the airport.
If you’re anything like me, airports don’t bother you in the least, and you might actually like (or in my case, love) them. Of course, it sure helps when you know the pro tip for Canadians to get free airport lounge access).
But if you are in an airport, it means you are traveling… and traveling is amazing! I know I wish I could be in an airport now.
In all cases, some of the iconic airports that stand out around the world are pretty unique. Pro travelers should know about those 10, and as a passionate traveler who loves every step of a trip, I was so pleasantly surprised by the performance of the article (and the one explaining airport codes).
So I decided to continue on that theme and write about the busiest airports in the world.
The busiest airports are always measured by total passenger traffic. Another metric used is aircraft movements (number of landings and takeoffs), but passenger numbers is the main metric—and rightly so.
Let’s explore the latest rankings of the 10 busiest airports in 2019. (TL;DR—skip to the bullet-point list at the end.)
1. ATL: Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (USA)
2019 passenger count: 110,531,300
Ranked #1 in 2018 (107,394,029 passengers)
Biggest carrier: Delta Air Lines (DL)
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Why is Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport so busy?
Atlanta isn’t even in the top five largest metropolitan areas in the US (it barely makes the top 10, at #9), and yet it has had the busiest airport in the entire world for the better part of the last 2 decades. The reason for this is Delta Air Lines: the largest airline in the world (by revenue) and the second-largest airline in the world (by passenger count).
The airline is based in Atlanta, making this airport their biggest hub, and the most prominent airline hub in the world, as well.
I’ve only been once, and it’s as good an example as you’ll find in the US that airports don’t have to be boring, shallow, and dull. The country is not recognized for its passenger-friendly airports. Then-VP Joe Biden once said NY’s LaGuardia Airport “felt like a third-world country,” which to me is insulting—many so-called “third-world” countries I’ve been to have much better airports than LaGuardia.
However, Atlanta offers a pretty decor, and also has 10 permanent art exhibits.
2. PEK: Beijing Capital International Airport (China)
2019 passenger count: 100,011,000
Ranked #2 in 2018 (100,983,290 passengers)
Biggest carrier: Air China (CA)
Why is Beijing Capital International Airport so busy?
Beijing is the hub for massively-subsidized flag-carrier Air China, which offers many flights linking Asia with Europe and North America. Beijing is especially well-positioned as one of the closest cities from North America distance-wise, so it’s a great connecting spot for all points in Asia.
The Chinese aviation market is growing like crazy, too, so much so that Beijing now has two main international airports. As I explained, it’s the first instance of a city having two airports segregated mostly by airline alliance. The new airport was much needed because Beijing Capital’s passenger numbers were going through the roof.
PEK will remain the main hub of China’s capital for now. Still, the new Beijing Daxing International Airport (PKX) might drag PEK down the ranking in the future. Most experts agree that with the expansion of current #4, PEK will lose the title of the busiest airport in Asia soon enough (although it’s now hard to predict what will happen because of the coronavirus).
On my recent trips to China and Southeast Asia, I transited through PEK myself. It is impressive, and it would be impossible to guess that this airport dates back to the 1950s. That’s because it was completely renovated and expanded for the Beijing Olympics in 2008 when they completed the gigantic international Terminal 3.
3. LAX: Los Angeles International Airport (USA)
2019 passenger count: 88,068,013
Ranked #4 in 2018 (87,534,384 passengers)
Biggest carrier: American Airlines (AA), Delta Air Lines (DL), and United Airlines (UA)
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Why is Los Angeles International Airport so busy?
LAX is the busiest origin and destination airport in the world: the airport with the most non-connecting passengers. If you’ve ever been to LAX, you would probably expect it to be near the top of this list. Many passengers describe this airport as overcrowded, stressful, and inefficient.
LAX is also apparently pretty ugly, at least in some terminals: the airport has 9 of them, and while some have been renovated recently, others haven’t been in decades. I can’t say since I haven’t been since I was 9 years old (I already loved airports and flying back then, but I can’t remember each airport from so far back).
LAX is so busy (and unique) for two main reasons. First, most large cities have at least two major airports (New York has JFK, EWR, and LGA; Chicago has ORD, and MDW; etc.), but this isn’t the case in Los Angeles (even if there are smaller ones, they aren’t major).
Secondly, usually, an airport is only a hub for one airline (or two sometimes). But LAX is a hub for all Big 3 US legacy carriers (American, Delta, and United) as well as for Alaska Airlines, a 4th legacy airline: no other airport is a hub for 4 airlines.
Good news, though: LAX is currently going under a transformation. By 2023, many traffic and congestion issues are expected to be alleviated.
4. HND: Tokyo Haneda Airport (Japan)
2019 passenger count: undisclosed
Ranked #5 in 2018 (87,131,973 passengers)
Biggest carrier: ANA-All Nippon Airways (NH) and JAL-Japan Airlines (JL)
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Why is Tokyo Haneda Airport so busy?
Tokyo has two major airports, and Narita was supposed to be the international hub, while Haneda remained the domestic hub. But everyone prefers Haneda, as it is much closer to the city center (remember that Tokyo is a massive urban region with over 30 million inhabitants).
So Haneda has kept growing and the government has decided to allow more international flights. In 2019, they just allocated many new transpacific slots to US carriers, which is why we spotted amazing prices like C$450 roundtrip from the Montreal and Toronto, or US$350 roundtrip from the East Coast when those new routes were announced.
Despite being the fourth busiest airport in the world, Haneda has the best on-time performance according to some metrics. If you know anything about the obsession for punctuality in Japan, that won’t surprise you.
I’ve never been to Japan as I try to stick to affordable countries as much as I can for now, but Haneda is known for its food. You can get a taste of Tokyo and Japanese culture. After you’ve had some traditional ramen and sushi, you can head to the Planetarium Starry Cafe and watch the stars.
5. DXB: Dubai International Airport (UAE)
2019 passenger count: 86,396,757
Ranked #3 in 2018 (89,149,387 passengers)
Biggest carrier: Emirates (EK)
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Why is Dubai International Airport so busy?
The growth of the Big 3 Gulf carriers in recent decades has been simply phenomenal. The government of Dubai bankrolls Emirates and has enabled the airline to grow from a tiny one to one of the world’s largest in a matter of a few years.
Dubai wanted to diversify from dependence on oil revenue and wanted to become a tourism hotspot. Given Dubai’s prime location at the intersection between Asia, Europe, and Africa, many now connect at Dubai International Airport on Emirates. The growth hasn’t been as quick as expected, though. The city opened a massive brand new secondary airport (DWC), but it is still sparsely used as it hasn’t been needed yet.
DXB has numerous dining options, spa facilities, shopping areas, and having been there in 2018; it sure is a luxurious airport compared to what we’re used to in North America (admittedly, that’s a low bar).
6. ORD: Chicago O’Hare International Airport (USA)
2019 passenger count: 84,397,776
Ranked #6 in 2018 (83,339,186 passengers)
Biggest carrier: United Airlines (UA) and American Airlines (AA)
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Why is Chicago O’Hare International Airport so busy?
First of all, Chicago is the US’ third-largest metropolitan area and is an important city for corporate offices and businesses. But most importantly, O’Hare International in Chicago is an essential hub for the central US for both United Airlines and American Airlines. In fact, United has its headquarters in Chicago, and ORD is its largest hub.
ORD was the world’s busiest for over two decades (from 1963 to 1998). This airport was the first major one that was planned after World War II and pioneered many concepts that are now a given in airports, but were innovative and original at the time: concourses, jet bridges, underground refueling systems, direct highway access, etc.
Having been there 4 times, it’s true that it isn’t the most modern. But officials have unveiled a massive US$8.5-billion redevelopment plan: O’Hare 21. It’s one of the biggest airport projects in the US: a new terminal will be constructed, and ORD will also become the first airport in the country designed around airline alliances, to facilitate connections.
7. LHR: London Heathrow Airport (UK)
2019 passenger count: 80,844,310
Ranked #7 in 2018 (80,126,320 passengers)
Biggest carrier: British Airways (BA)
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Why is London Heathrow Airport so busy?
Even though London has 6 commercial airports in total, Heathrow remains the busiest airport in Europe and 7th busiest in the world. There are many reasons for this: London is a massive city, it’s a major tourist destination, and it’s the business center of the world.
The airport is completely saturated, though, as I explained in the other airport article. A single landing slot once sold for $75 million. There are plans to add a third runway, but it will take a while (if it ever gets done at all).
I’ve never transited there because the airport has some of the highest fees, but overall it seems it is a pretty average experience.
8. PVG: Shanghai Pudong International Airport (China)
2019 passenger count: 76,153,500
Ranked #9 in 2018 (74,006,331 passengers)
Biggest carrier: China Eastern Airlines (MU)
Why is Shanghai Pudong International Airport so busy?
Shanghai is the most populous metropolitan area and the main financial, commercial, and business center of China. PVG is also the main hub for China Eastern Airlines, a top-10 global airline.
Many of the airports in this list were also in our article of airports that stand out the most, but Shanghai Pudong Airport didn’t make the cut, and that was for a reason. This airport isn’t necessarily known as one of the best to spend time while waiting to board.
However, I must say that having been to both PVG and Shanghai’s other airport (SHA), PVG is much better. And there is a special attraction at PVG; it’s just not in the airport: the world’s fastest train, a maglev (magnetic levitation train), connects you to the city.
It was enjoyable to ride and see the speedometer hit 431 km/h (268 mph). Not to mention seeing city blocks go by so fast through the window.
9. CDG: Paris-Charles De Gaulle Airport (France)
2019 passenger count: 76,150,007
Ranked #10 in 2018 (72,229,723 passengers)
Biggest carrier: Air France (AF)
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Why is Paris-Charles De Gaulle Airport so busy?
The Paris-Charles De Gaulle Airport is the busiest hub of continental Europe. Paris is a major travel destination, business center, and a connecting point for many European flights.
The reputation of this airport, however, has been pretty low. The outdated infrastructure makes it inefficient and overcrowded. Having been a few times, I still don’t understand what the design team was thinking—or how the multiple levels work for that matter. Yes, CDG has 5 levels connected by escalators in the middle of a large atrium. It’s unlike any other airport I have ever seen.
Many people love to complain about “secondary” airports, but the fact is airfares are often lower, and it’s much less crowded. And in the case of Paris, Orly (ORY) is a great alternative because it’s just as quick to get to the city, and I found it to be as nice (or nicer) than CDG personally.
10. DFW: Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (USA)
2019 passenger count: 75,066,956
Ranked #15 in 2018 (69,112,607 passengers)
Biggest carrier: American Airlines (AA)
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Why is Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport so busy?
Many people know that NYC, LA, and Chicago are the US’ top 3 metro areas. But not many know that Dallas is the 4th largest (and along with the other Texas metropolis of Houston—at #5—it is growing much faster than the rest of the top 20 metro areas).
DFW also happens to be the biggest hub for American Airlines, which is the world’s largest airline (by passenger count) and the second-largest (by revenue). AA is also headquartered in Dallas, like its rival Delta is in Atlanta.
DFW’s position in the center of the United States makes it an ideal airport for connection from all over the country. It’s actually the 4th-busiest in the world if you consider aircraft movements instead of passenger numbers.
I’ve only been once, but I can attest to the fact that it is better than many US airports, but nothing like the glitzy airports in other parts of the world. It’s often ranked slightly above average among US airports.
(Bonus—2018 Top 10 Airport) HKG: Hong Kong International Airport (Hong Kong)
2019 rank: 13th
2019 passenger count: 71,541,000
Ranked #8 in 2018 (74,517,402 passengers)
Biggest carrier: Cathay Pacific (CX)
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Why is Hong Kong International Airport so busy?
I’ve included HKG since we prepared this article in advance of the 2019 stats being officially released, and HKG was in the top 10 every year for the past 5 years. With the protests greatly affecting travel to Hong Kong last year, the airport fell to 15th place. It was the only change in the top 10 (PVG and CDG moved up and DFW slid into the top 10).
Nevertheless, I love Hong Kong and I am sure the city will rebound after the coronavirus crisis. Hong Kong is a major commercial and business hot spot. It has an ideal geographical position connecting many parts of the world. But more than anything else, Hong Kong is a fascinating travel destination—including the airport itself.
The airport, which is built on a human-made island in the sea, is an actual feast for the senses. As I mentioned in the other article, HKG is a 5-hour flight from 50% of the world’s population.
Here, you can find the largest theater screen in Hong Kong, play golf around the island lake, learn more about the aviation history in the Aviation Discovery Center, and even see what it’s like to be a pilot in the flight simulator. The dining options are also impressive. I can’t wait to visit.
10 Busiest Airports In 2019 Bullet-Point List
- ATL: Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (USA)
- PEK: Beijing Capital International Airport (China)
- LAX: Los Angeles International Airport (USA)
- HND: Tokyo Haneda Airport (Japan)
- DXB: Dubai International Airport (UAE)
- ORD: Chicago O’Hare International Airport (USA)
- LHR: London Heathrow Airport (UK)
- PVG: Shanghai Pudong International Airport (China)
- CDG: Paris-Charles De Gaulle Airport (France)
- DFW: Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (USA)
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Featured image: Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
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