Home Airports The Busiest Airports In The World, Mid-COVID, Compared To Past Years

The Busiest Airports In The World, Mid-COVID, Compared To Past Years

by SharonKurheg

In 2020, the aviation industry was all a twitter (literally and figuratively) when China’s Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport overtook the U.S.’s Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport for the busiest airport in the world.

Having been in the #1 position for 22 years running, Atlanta apparently didn’t like that ;-). And for 2021, trade association Airports Council International has just announced that ATL was once again #1, with 75.7 million passengers.

In fact, Atlanta was up 76% from 2020 (well duh…it was the height of COVID and hardly anyone was flying). Guangzhou actually dropped to 8th place in 2021, with only 40.3 million passengers. (and again, DUH – China was, for all intents and purposes, shut down then, with no tourism and minimal business travel, and it’s still shut down now).

To add insult to injury for China, Chengdu’s Shuangliu International Airport, which was ranked 3rd busiest in 2020, now dropped to 9th place (but again, makes sense, all things considered).

All told, 8 of the top 10 airports on the 2021 list were from the United States:

  1. Atlanta (ATL) – 75.7 million passengers
  2. Dallas/Fort Worth (FFW) – 62.4 million
  3. Denver (DEN) – 58.8 million
  4. Chicago (ORD) – 54M
  5. Los Angeles (LAX) – 48M
  6. Charlotte (CLT) – 43.3M
  7. Orlando (MCO) – 40.3M
  8. Guangzhou (CAN) – 40.2M
  9. Chengdu (CTU) – 40.1M
  10. Las Vegas (LAS) – 39.7M

Charlotte, Orlando and Las Vegas were newbies to the list, at least in the past several years (although I only listed rankings as far back as 2018, I looked at lists going backward through 2013 and, to that point, none of the three had been listed). Note that 2 of the 3 are heavy “tourist” locations.

Fun Facts!

  • Total global passengers in 2021 is estimated to have been close to 4.5 billion. That’s an increase of almost 25% from 2020 (during COVID), but less than 50% of 2019 numbers (pre-COVID).
  • Passenger traffic at these top 10 busiest airports collectively represents almost 10% of the world’s total global traffic in 2021 (463 million passengers). That was a gain of 51.8% from 2020, or a drop of 29.1% from their 2019 results.

What about previous years?

Just for fun, we looked at the past 3 years to do a comparison of 2021’s numbers. As a reminder, in 2021, we started with airports still kind of reeling because not many people were flying. The COVID shots were introduced and as more people got their vaccines, and cases of the Delta variant went south.


2020, of course, was at the front end of the pandemic. In the U.S. lots of people were on lockdown here and there, or at least were isolating if they were sick with the virus. Hardly anyone was flying. So those numbers are totally off the wall from previous years. Case in point, only 3 U.S. airports made the top 10:

  1. Guangzhou (CAN)- 43.8M
  2. Atlanta (ATL) – 42.9M
  3. Chengdu (CTU) 40.7M
  4. Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) – 39.4M
  5. Shenzhen (SZX) – 37.9M
  6. Beijing (PEK) – 34.5M
  7. Denver (DEN) – 33.7M
  8. Kunming (KMG) – 33M
  9. Shanghai (SHA) 31.2M
  10. Xi’an (XIY) 31.1M

At worst, some airports in 2019 may have seen some slightly decreased numbers in comparison to 2018, due to the advent of COVID, especially in Asia, towards the tail end of the year. Others may have seen some increases if they were having a particularly good year, or if the majority of their passengers weren’t from places where COVID and resulting shutdowns occurred early.

The top 10 in 2019 saw 4 airports from the U.S., 2 from China, 2 from Europe and 1 each from the Middle East and (non-China) Asia.

  1. Atlanta (ATL) – 100M
  2. Beijing (PEK) – 110.5M
  3. Los Angeles (LAX) – 88.1M
  4. Dubai (DXB) – 86.4M
  5. Tokyo (Haneda) (HND) – 85.5M
  6. Chicago (ORD) – 84.6M
  7. London (Heathrow) (LHR)  – 80.9M
  8. Shanghai (Pudong) (PVG) – 76.2M
  9. Paris (Charles de Gaulle) CDG – 76.2M
  10. Dallas/Ft. Worth (DFW) – 75.1M

2018 was the last halcyon year before there was a COVID-19 virus anywhere. That being said, the numbers, in comparison to 2021, and especially 2020, show how many passengers air travel has actually lost in recent years.

The top 10 airports were a representation of 3 from the U.S. and China, 2 each from Europe and 1 each from (non-China) Asia, and the Middle East.

  1. Atlanta (ATL) – 101M
  2. Beijing (PEK) – 101M
  3. Dubai (DBX) – 89.1M
  4. Los Angeles (LAX) – 87.5M
  5. Tokyo (HND) – 86.9M
  6. Chicago (ORD) – 83.2M
  7. London (LHR) – 80.9M
  8. Hong Kong (HKG) – 74.5M
  9. Shanghai (PVG) – 74M
  10. Paris (CDG) – 72.2M

I’ll be interested to see what the 2022 listing is, when it comes out next year. Nearly all countries are back open for travel. And, at least as of this writing, we’re not in nearly as bad of a place as we were in 2020 and 2021 in terms of the pandemic (fingers crossed that it stays that way).

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