Which is the Busiest Airport?

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

Image courtesy of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport

Which is the Busiest Airport?
| published March 29,2015 |

By Thursday Review staff

The old joke used to be that when you die, your soul still has to pass through Atlanta to get to heaven or to hell. Whether that is true remains for all of us to see at some later point.

For now, however, the debate still rages over how to define the busiest airport in the United States—by the total number of people and passengers who pass through its halls and terminals, or by the total number of flights which take-off and land on its runways.

If you’re measuring the human factor alone, Atlanta wins hands down. New data from the FAA and the Airports Council International show that in 2014 some 96 million people (yes, that’s million) made their way in and/or out of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, up about 2% over the previous year. That makes Hartsfield-Jackson the busiest airport not just in North America—which we already knew—but also in the world, edging out even Beijing Capital International in China and Heathrow in London. This new statistical fact lends credence to that old joke about where one goes after one shuffles off this mortal coil.  So the city that gave us Coca-Cola and The Weather Channel wins.

But not so fast Atlanta.

If you are measuring an airport by the total number of flights, Chicago wins, barely. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, Chicago reclaimed its title of busiest airport by logging 881,933 “operations,” or flights and landings, in 2014, beating Atlanta by about 15,000 flights. That makes Chicago the busier of the two airports, despite a net loss of about 1% in total flights. Part of Chicago’s gain comes by way of a new runway, which runs parallel to an existing runway to save valuable space.

So the Cubs beat the Braves. Sort of.

In reality, both airports get the title for now. Chicago and Atlanta have traded the heavyweight title, back and forth, for three decades. But aviation experts and industry analysts say that the split in the numbers reflect two trends: Atlanta’s major carriers are moving more people on fewer, and larger, planes. Chicago is moving more planes in and out thanks to the efficiency of its newer runways, and the newfound ability to add more routes, more carriers, and more flexibility.

Both airports saw an increase in some part due to recent airline mergers, which increased efficiency but also funneled more people and more flights through Chicago, the biggest of the Midwest hubs, and Atlanta, the granddaddy of all Southern hubs. Atlanta also reaches into more than 50 countries, meaning its closest U.S. rival for international flights in New York’s JFK Airport.

So it depends on how you measure it.

As for international flights, Dubai International beat out London’s Heathrow as the world’s busiest, making 2014 the first year in decades that London had fewer international travelers than any of its competitors. Dubai saw some 70.4 million passengers pass through its gates in 2014.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Safest City in the World: Tokyo; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; March 13, 2015.

Expedia Will Buy Orbitz; Thursday Review staff; Thursday Review; February 13, 2015.