Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson was busiest U.S. airport in 2020

Travelers check in through plexiglass dividers at Delta at Hartsfield-Jackson. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Travelers check in through plexiglass dividers at Delta at Hartsfield-Jackson. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Airport also displaced Chicago O’Hare for most flights last year

Hartsfield-Jackson International saw steep drops in traffic in 2020, but with air travel everywhere taking a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic, it still handled more passengers than any other U.S. airport.

The Atlanta airport had 20.6 million passengers boarding flights in 2020 — a 62% decline from a year earlier, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The traffic put Hartsfield-Jackson ahead of Dallas/Fort Worth in 2nd place, Denver in 3rd place, Chicago O’Hare in 4th and Los Angeles International in 5th.

Atlanta’s airport has held the No. 1 ranking in the world for passenger traffic since 1998, but 2020 global rankings have not yet been released.

Hartsfield-Jackson also handled more flights than O’Hare last year, according to Federal Aviation Administration figures, after O’Hare held the title for the most flights in the world in 2018 and 2019.

At the lowest point in April, Hartsfield-Jackson had only 450 flights a day and about 9,000 passengers, down from 2,600 flights a day and 310,000 passengers in pre-pandemic times, outgoing general manager John Selden said Thursday at the South Metro Development Outlook virtual conference.

The terminal “was very strange looking, very eerie, very deserted,” Selden said. But “traffic is coming back” and the airport recovered to 2,000 flights a day last weekend.

“We look forward to very good passenger traffic coming through spring break and then into summer,” he added.

Dallas/Fort Worth saw a 48% decline in traffic last year, a smaller drop than some other hubs, bringing it ahead of Los Angeles with its 67% decline and O’Hare with a 64% decline. Denver had a 52% decline in passenger counts and jumped from the No. 5 spot to No. 3.

Some inland hubs like Dallas and Denver saw smaller declines in traffic because of their focus on connecting domestic passengers across the country, while the pandemic hit overseas flights and international hubs the hardest because of international travel restrictions to limit the spread of the coronavirus.

New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport is the busiest U.S. airport for international traffic and saw a 76% decline in passenger counts in 2020.

While Atlanta in normal times has a decent share of international flights to Latin America and Europe, it is not as dependent on international flights as JFK and other coastal hubs like Newark, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Among air carriers, Dallas-based Southwest Airlines carried the most passengers in the country, followed by American Airlines and Delta Air Lines.

Atlanta-based Delta, which continued blocking middle seats through the pandemic when other airlines resumed policies of filling planes, fell from the No. 2 spot to No. 3 with 55.1 million passengers in 2020, down from 162.5 million in 2019. Delta has said it will block middle seats through April.

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