Atlanta airport still the “busiest”

Hartsfield-Jackson nips Chicago’s O’hare for second year in a row

Published on: 01/04/07

They’ve got Oprah. We’ve got Elton. They had Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. We had Gen. Sherman.

And for the second year in a row, we had more airplanes taking off and landing at our big airport than they did at theirs.

The Federal Aviation Administration confirmed Thursday that Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport had yet again trumped Chicago’s O’Hare for the title of nation’s busiest airport when measured in terms of takeoffs and landings.

Hartsfield-Jackson and O’Hare have vied for the No. 1 bragging rights since the late 1990s when Atlanta’s airport stepped up to challenge O’Hare’s long reign.

In 2005, Hartsfield topped O’Hare in both passengers and the number of takeoffs and landings, making it the busiest airport in the world — a title it still holds, according to the Airports Council International.

“What this is indicative of is the continued robust economy in the city of Atlanta, the good weather we have and the ever-increasing number of corporate headquarters that are being set up here,” said Mario Diaz, deputy general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson.

O’Hare, however, is under flight restrictions, and it shares metro area air traffic with Midway Airport — two factors that cut into Chicago’s standing.

London’s Heathrow came in third worldwide behind Atlanta and Chicago in the most recent ranking of airports worldwide, as measured by passengers and cargo.

Final passenger numbers for 2006 have not been calculated, but through November, Hartsfield counted about 78 million passengers, while O’Hare had about 70 million, airport spokeswoman Sterling Payne said. In 2005, Hartsfield had 86 million passengers, compared with 77 million for O’Hare, and officials predicted Atlanta would again top O’Hare in total passenger traffic.

“There’s no way they can catch up” with December numbers, Diaz said.

Atlanta’s airport recorded 976,313 takeoffs and landings in 2006 , compared to 958,643 for O’Hare, according to the FAA.

Dallas Fort-Worth came in third nationally with 702,713. Chicago’s Midway had 298,547.

The top numbers were down a bit compared to last year, said Kathleen Bergen, spokeswoman for the FAA’s Atlanta office, which oversees the Southern region.

Atlanta’s air traffic was down about .4 percent, while Chicago’s was off about 1.4 percent and Dallas’ about 2.2 percent.

“We attribute that to a bit of a slower pace in the industry in general,” Bergen said.

Wendy Abrams, spokeswoman for Chicago’s Department of Aviation, said Chicago officials were not surprised Atlanta bested O’Hare for a second year running.

“O’Hare’s flight restrictions, which are scheduled to expire next year, have limited our ability to land and depart aircraft and, ultimately, meet the demand for air service that continues to grow at our airport,” she said.

The FAA limited the number of flights coming into O’Hare because of overscheduling by airlines. The restrictions will be lifted once airport expansions are completed.

Atlanta, meanwhile, opened a fifth runway in May 2006, and Delta added 23 new international flights to its hub even as it tried to climb out of bankruptcy, Diaz said.

He pointed out that Atlanta and Chicago might not have much longer to brag about on the “busiest” front in coming years.

A rising middle class in China and India could swell air travel in those countries, making the Atlanta-Chicago rivalry a thing of the past.

“We all understand that being the world’s busiest is the most fleeting event around,” he said.