Why Atlanta Is The World’s Busiest Airport

Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport has been the busiest airport  (by passenger number) for many years. It may seem surprising that this title is not held by one of the largest cities or well-known hub locations, such as London, New York, or Dubai. The airport’s strategic location and role as the main hub for one of the world’s largest airlines combine to make it the busiest in the world.

Delta Atlanta Aircraft Apron
Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport is Delta’s main hub. Photo: Getty Images

The busiest airport in the world

According to data from Airports Council International (ACI), Atlanta tops the list for the highest passenger volume, with just over 110 million passengers in 2019 (this represents a 2.9% growth over 2018). This is far from a new development. It has been the busiest airport each year since 1998.

It is a clear 10 million passengers ahead of the second place airport, Beijing. Los Angeles makes it to third place with 88 million, with Dubai and Tokyo Haneda following. The busiest airport in Europe is London Heathrow (in seventh place) with 81 million, closely followed by Paris Charles de Gaulle with 76 million.

Heathrow British Airways BA
London is a much larger city than Atlanta, but its main airport is not as busy. Photo: Getty Images

Atlanta only has a population (according to the US Census Bureau) of just over 500,000. This makes it only the 37th largest city in the United States and obviously far behind many other global cities. However, the metropolitan area houses well over six million people, one of the key reasons the airport does so well.

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily and weekly aviation news digests.

A major hub airport for Delta Air Lines

Delta is currently the second-largest airline globally, having been overtaken in passenger numbers and revenue by American Airlines following its merger with US Airways. It is close at the top, though, with Delta even moving ahead in the second quarter of 2019 for total revenue.

Delta Airbus A330
Atlanta is the main hub for Delta, the second-largest airline globally. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Since the 1980s, the largest US airlines have embarked to a certain extent on a hub and spoke strategy. Each of American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta Air Lines has grown around multiple hub locations, partly fueled by mergers and acquisitions over the years.

Delta 1940s
Delta’s base in Atlanta in the 1940s. Photo: Delta Air Lines

While the largest cities are obviously important destinations for the airlines, their airports do not work well as hubs. There is high demand from all airlines, both domestic and international, restricting slot availability and pushing up prices. It makes sense then that airlines have focussed on driving connecting traffic through other, cheaper cities.

Simple Flying took a detailed look at all main US airline hubs in a recent article. American Airlines’ largest is Dallas Forth Worth, but it operates from ten hubs in total. United Airlines has a major hub at Chicago O’Hare (which pushes Chicago ORD to sixth place in the airport rankings).

Atlanta has always been the main base for Delta. The airline has its origins in 1925 with Georgia-based Huff Daland Dusters, opening its headquarters in Atlanta in 1941. It now operates several hubs, with Minneapolis- St Paul Aiport becoming a major one for the airline’s merger with Northwest Airlines. But Atlanta is by far the largest.

One airport for Atlanta

Being the main hub for the current second-largest global airline is a major factor, but the airport’s location also helps boost passenger numbers. It occupies a strategic eastern point in the United States, acting as a major entry point for international traffic. And, according to the airport, it is located within a two-hour flight of 80% of the population of the US —certainly a strategic location.

The airport retains a very populous catchment area and is the only airport serving the city and surrounding area. Contrast that, for example, with New York’s multiple airports or the several options in California. American and United’s main hubs at Dallas and Chicago all have multiple airports nearby.

Atlanta airport
Unlike many other cities, Atlanta has just one large airport. Photo: Atlanta Airport

Changing competition

The slowdown in aviation seen in 2020 and into 2021 has obviously had a big effect on airport rankings. The passenger numbers from ACI are for 2019, with full-year numbers for 2020 not yet available (you can see more 2019 data through the Port Authority of New York).

US airports should retain high rankings, as there is a high volume of domestic traffic. This should help Chinese airports as well. It is, of course, international travel that has suffered the most. Heathrow, for example, dropped out of Europe’s top 10 busiest airports by October 2020 (with overall passenger numbers experiencing a drop of 75% in 2020).

Why Atlanta Is The World’s Busiest Airport
Beijing is close behind in second place, and this could change with the shifts in aviation since 2020. Photo: Triple Tree via Wikimedia Commons 

There are indications already of changes in the US, but Atlanta may well still hold the top place. It did for the first quarter of 2020, with just an 18.2% drop, compared to a huge 62.6% for Beijing. Further down, it is expected that Denver Airport has lept up to third place (behind Atlanta and Dallas Forth Worth), due mainly to its strong focus on domestic rather than international traffic.

Beijing is one to watch too. Beijing Capital Airport (PEK) is already in second place, and the new, larger, Daxing airport (PKX) is now operating. It is planned to reach a capacity of 75 million by 2025, and 100 million after this.

Would you like to share any thoughts or comments on Atlanta Airport and its role as the busiest globally? Do you see it keeping this position for many more years? Let us know in the comments.