Atlanta Isn’t the World’s Busiest Airport (or Even Second) By One Important Measure

When I was a kid I knew that “whether you’re going to heaven or hell, you’ll have to connect in Atlanta.”

It wasn’t until 1971 though that the airport got its first international flights (Mexico and Jamaica on Eastern Airlines). The first non-US airline to fly to Atlanta was Sabena in 1978.

    Eastern Air Lines L-188 Electra N5512 by Piergiuliano Chesi. CC BY-SA 3.0

It’s the ideally-located major city for connections throughout the Southeast. United basically cedes this entire region. American didn’t serve it well from Miami. The closest competitor was US Airways, now part of American, in Charlotte.

Delta dominates Atlanta, of course, though they were briefly challenged by Airtran. Southwest, as acquirer, hasn’t become the silver bullet there some might have expected.

As the busiest airport in the world by passenger count, it surprisingly doesn’t get there through massive widebody jets full of passengers. It’s largely a domestic airport, though there certainly is an international route network. Most flights out of the airport are on narrow bodies.

But it’s precisely the large number of narrowbodies – mostly full these days — that allow it to carry the most passengers (over 100 million in 2015 and presumably 2016 as well) while not offering the most seats. In fact, in terms of airline capacity it’s not even in second place.

Here are the 5 busiest airports in the world by departing seats in the 4th quarter of 2016, using data from Diio Mio (HT: Airline Weekly)

  1. Dubai: 14,985,566
  2. Beijing: 14,828,212
  3. Atlanta: 14,409,522
  4. Tokyo Haneda: 13,977,828
  5. London Heathrow: 11,884,248

Dubai International Airport

Dubai doesn’t have nearly as many flights as Atlanta, but a substantial proportion of its flights are operated by widebodies. There’s a short haul route network serving the Mideast, and indeed flydubai operates only Boeing 737s. But Emirates is the largest operator of Airbus A380s, and the backbone of their fleet is Boeing 777s. There are no domestic commercial flights.

Emirates Airbus A380

Los Angeles comes in sixth, just a hair behind Heathrow, and of course there’s plenty of narrowbody activity and indeed regional jets as well there. Chicago clocks in at 8th and Dallas at 14th. New York JFK and Denver are nearly tied at 22nd and 23rd respectively.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. If the number of passengers per quarters are only 15 million, how does it add up to 100 million passengers per year ????

  2. The fact that Emirates flies half-empty A380s around the globe pads DXB’s numbers significantly. Imagine ATL’s numbers if Delta flew 777s on all their domestic routes.

  3. I checked the Aviation Weekly link but saw nothing related to a ranking of the world’s busiest airports.

    The numbers of departing seats listed in the post don’t add up. The cited numbers are purportedly quarterly results. Multiplying those numbers by four, they are all less than 60 million departing seats per year which is less than the 100 million passengers that actually boarded in ATL. Is there an explanation for this? It would be helpful.

  4. @John – Connecting passengers are counted twice in traditional airport statistics. So a passenger flying for example MCO-ATL-DFW would count as two passengers – one for arrival and one for departure. The 15m statistic is only for DEPARTING capacity. When Atlanta says they have 100m passengers, they actually have only about 50% of that capacity departing the airport and the rest are arrivals.

  5. John is exactly correct. DXB and Emirates are notorious for padding the numbers and themselves. Just like Emirates and all the Gulf Nations airlines each say every year they were voted number one airline. The member airlines they pay the most win that distinction. All smoking mirrors.

  6. @Sean M. and Flynfool. Thanks for the follow up. So passenger count counts arriving and departing passengers and departing seats measures the number of seats on departing aircraft whether they are occupied or unoccupied. Then departing seats seems to be a meaningless stat in terms if measuring how busy an airport is.

    Dubai is a big connecting airport just like Atlanta, right? That’s the only way to even partially fill all those A380s, 777s etc. Yet its passenger cout trails Atlanta. Interesting.

  7. Silly “Metric.” If the seats don’t have butts in them, no one who knows anything about the business cares.

    The ME3 fly half empty jets because they are state owned and don’t have any profit incentive. Did they pay for this?

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