Hartsfield-Jackson reclaimed the title after an airport in China, Guanzhou Bai Yun International Airport, took the No. 1 spot in 2020. China staged an initial pandemic recovery earlier than the rest of the world, but some cities, such as Shanghai, have reinstated tight restrictions and lockdowns.
Airports including Atlanta benefit from U.S. reopening policies that have been more stable than those of other countries, said Ramnath Chellappa, associate dean at Emory University’s Goizueta Business School.
Air travel is a key economic barometer not only for Atlanta but for the world economy.
Traffic levels also “reflect the level of commerce that is happening,” he said.
The rankings for 2021 “tell the story of an encouraging trend of recovery, with most of the recurrent busiest airports pre-COVID-19 back at the top,” said ACI World Director General Luis Felipe de Oliveira in a written statement.
Hartsfield-Jackson’s passenger counts in 2021 were up 76.4% from 2020, but still down nearly one-third from 2019. Since the retreat of the omicron variant earlier this year, domestic traffic has been nearing 2019 levels.
At Hartsfield-Jackson, “we’re approaching pre-pandemic numbers,” with the airport expecting as many as 98 million passengers passing through the airport this year, said Hartsfield-Jackson spokesman Andrew Gobeil last week.
In the No. 2 spot for passenger traffic behind Atlanta was Dallas/Fort Worth with 62.5 million passengers, jumping up from No. 4 in 2020 and the No. 10 in 2019.
Denver International Airport came in third in 2021. Chicago O’Hare came in fourth with 54 million passengers.
Globally, about 4.5 billion passengers flew by air in 2021, up nearly 25% from 2020 but still just half of 2019 levels, according to Airports Council International.
“Although we are cautious that recovery could face multiple headwinds, the momentum created by reopening plans by countries could lead to an uptick in travel in the second half of 2022,” de Oliveira said.
With leisure travel recovering the quickest, Orlando International Airport had the biggest improvement in passenger traffic in the world, with an 86.7% year-over-year increase to 40.4 million passengers, putting it in the No. 7 spot in 2021.
“To a great degree up to now it’s been a leisure-driven recovery in the U.S.,” said Richard Evans, senior consultant at aviation consulting firm Ascend by Cirium during a webinar last week. “Increasingly we’re seeing evidence that business travel is coming back and conference attendance — even including international conferences now — is really starting to pick up.”
Hartsfield-Jackson reported 707,661 landings and take-offs in 2021, up 29.1% for 2020 but still down 21.7% from 2019.
Atlanta had been displaced in past years by Chicago O’Hare in the No. 1 spot for flight counts, but Atlanta had the most flights in 2020 and 2021.
“We are thrilled to see the overwhelming increase in passenger traffic” and “proud” to be the busiest airport in the world based on passengers and flight counts, said Balram Bheodari, general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson, in a written statement.
It’s unclear how long Atlanta’s hold on the top spot will last. Chellappa, the Emory associate dean, noted the development of huge airports in China and the Middle East — most notably Beijing and Dubai — which have been seen as potential rivals to Atlanta for the title of world’s busiest airport.
THE WORLD’S TEN BUSIEST AIRPORTS IN 2021
Total passengers enplaned and deplaned, with passengers in transit counted once
Dallas/Fort Worth 62,465,756
Los Angeles 48,007,284
Las Vegas 39,754,366