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The world's top 30 airports: a disparate grouping

9-Aug-2011

The world's top 30 airports all have the same base task to accomplish, getting people on and off aircraft, but they are far from a homogeneous group. CAPA has been profiling each of the top 30, based on passenger throughput and as ranked by Airports Council International (ACI), and now we summarise the group.

The top 30 is constantly changing, with some airports rising into the group and others losing position or dropping off. For much of the history of commercial aviation, US airports have tended to overwhelmingly dominate, with European hubs next.

That pattern is changing – rapidly – and will, within the next decade, create a new “normal” list that is heavy on Asian airports, especially in China. And, of course, the burgeoning carriers of the Gulf region will continue to move their bases up the rankings.

World's top 30 airports – 20 years of change

Rank

1991

1999

2010

1

ORD

ATL

ATL

2

DFW

ORD

PEK

3

LAX

LAX

ORD

4

HND

LHR

LHR

5

LHR

DFW

HND

6

ATL

HND

LAX

7

SFO

FRA

CDG

8

DEN

CDG

DFW

9

FRA

SFO

FRA

10

MIA

DEN

DEN

11

JFK

AMS

HKG

12

ITM

MSP

MAD

13

HNL

DTW

DXB

14

EWR

MIA

JFK

15

PHX

EWR

AMS

16

CDG

LAS

JKT

17

BOS

PHX

BKK

18

DTW

SEL

SIN

19

NRT

IAH

CAN

20

MSP

JFK

PVG

21

LAS

LGW

IAH

22

HKG

STL

LAS

23

LGA

HKG

SFO

24

YYZ

MCO

PHX

25

STL

YYZ

CLT

26

LGW

SEA

FCO

27

GMP

MAD

SYD

28

MCO

BKK

MIA

29

IAH

BOS

MCO

30

CLT

SIN

MUC

Even a quick glance at the record of the past two decades provides a snapshot of this rearrangement as more Asian airports appear and the North American numbers dwindle, with many of those remaining on the list inching their way down.

Top 30 airports by region

 

1991

1999

2010

North America

21

19

13

Europe

4

6

7

Asia

5

5

9

Oceania

0

0

1

Gulf

0

0

1

Numbers reflect changing industry realities

In the US, some airports have seen their fortunes recast, both positively and negatively. St Louis, a TWA hub in 1991, lost first its carrier and then its position when American chose to grow elsewhere.

The reverse is true of Denver, which due to a new facility and the arrival of both Southwest and Frontier, moved up in the 1990s and continues to hold its own.

Some airports with high-traffic but static infrastructure have either seen replacement facilities (such as Kansai for Itami or Incheon for Gimpo), yet the new airports have either split the traffic or done less well, removing their cities from the list.

In 1991, en-route stops were more common, keeping Honolulu on the list as a Pacific way-station. But now the airport is overflown by international flights and many of HNL's international routes are O&D services.

In 1991, all three New York airports rated a spot, but that had dropped to only two in 1999 and one in 2010, indicating that the New York metro area is less a focus than it was, and that its airports are quite full and unable to keep pace with traffic increases elsewhere. Plus, in the 20 years, many routes previously operated with mainline aircraft are now flown with smaller-capacity RJs and many international flights now use smaller equipment as well. The days when the 747 was the norm for trans-Atlantic travel are gone.

The same is true in London; where Gatwick has fallen off the list and Heathrow is at capacity and will likely drop further down the list.

Decline does not mean dying

And a quick reminder that a position decline does not necessarily mean an absolute decline. Almost all of the airports on the 2010 list continue to grow their numbers, but other airports, with double-digit growth, simply surpass the incumbents. Growth at Beijing moved it from 49th to second in a decade.

Nor does an airport’s absence from the list diminish its importance. New York’s LaGuardia or Washington’s Reagan are both key airports in the US aviation market, but their physical limitations mean that they will not be able to grow in the way that Bangalore or Shenzhen will. Yet they will retain their status and convenience for travellers.

The rise of the Gulf airports relates to a strategy rather than an innate demand for travel to the cities in which the airports are located. Doha’s airport may someday surpass Heathrow in passenger traffic but that says nothing about the relative importance of the cities involved to the world economy or its cultural stature.

What is revealed by the rankings is the shifting patterns of affluence and growth in developing markets as well as changes in traffic flows for connecting passengers, with traditional routes via Europe being replaced by connections elsewhere.

A comparative look at the top 30

While the macro trends are in flux, and will continue to be, there are interesting subgroups within the list.

Most of the top-ranked airports have a mixed bag of international and domestic seats available. There are some airports that are 100% international and another that is very close to that, LHR.

World's top 30 airports: the primarily international airports

Airport

% International

HKG

100

AMS

100

DXB

100

SIN

100

LHR

94

It is no surprise that four are places lacking a domestic market as well as key players in other modes of transportation and trade as well. Heathrow has seen a constant decline in domestic traffic as its limited slots are allocated for international travel, hence its singular focus.

World's top 30 airports: domestic share

Airport

% Domestic

 US

DEN

97

PHX

95

LAS

95

CLT

91

MCO

89

DFW

89

ORD

83

ATL

82

MIA

46

JFK

46

 Asia

HND

89

CAN

83

PEK

75

CGK

74

In Europe

FCO

35

MAD

35

MUC

24

Looking now at the domestic traffic distribution we find that all the major US hubs, save two, are far from being “global centres” for air transport. Even the “biggies” of Chicago and Atlanta are overwhelmingly dedicated to domestic travel.

In Asia, and in places where huge domestic demand exists, there is a similar trend. Haneda, continuously on the list, is a domestic airport, and despite the authorisation of new international slots, it will probably remain so.

In Jakarta, we see strong domestic demand in a land that is made up of many islands, where air transport is the most logical alternative for internal travel. And for all its spectacular growth, Beijing’s primary focus remains on the Chinese home market.

Clearly, the term Global Hub denotes very different realities, depending on who is using it.

intense focus on domestic travel at most US airports may explain the fact that many get generally mediocre ratings from passengers. Many US travellers are astonished by the activities and facilities available at European and Asian airports that deal with a far higher percentage of international travellers, whose selection of a connecting point may depend in part on an airport’s quality.

Having a lot of passengers pass through the doors often has little correlation to the quality of the passenger experience. While Singapore’s Changi and Hong Kong’s Chep Lap Kok both make the list in terms of traffic, when it comes to pleasing passengers, they rank at the top of the pile.

Seoul’s Incheon, also a passenger favourite, lacks numbers but not appeal. And while T5 has helped in the image department, most regular travellers would move Heathrow down a few notches in customer satisfaction.

Likewise, Minneapolis-St Paul often gets good marks for its service but lacks the passenger count to make the list. And number one Atlanta, while not necessarily deficient, does not create “warm and fuzzies” for the millions who transit the airport each year.

Hub dominance

One characteristic that we repeatedly noticed was that US carriers are far more dominant at their hubs than is the case in the rest of the world. At all of its hubs except JFK, Delta supplies more than 70% of the seats, making competitive carriers fairly non-threatening except to their hubs or on routes were no Delta direct service exists.

US carrier hub shares

American

% of seats

DFW

87

MIA

70

ORD

37

LAX

17

JFK

17

Delta

 

MEM

83

DTT

81

MSP

79

CVG

78

ATL

78

SLC

73

JFK

24

United

 

IAH

84

EWR

66

IAD

65

ORD

47

SFO

44

DEN

39

US Airways

 

CLT

89

PHL

70

Alaska

 

SEA

47

Hawaiian

 

HNL

80

This kind of control is unprecedented elsewhere, and only Lufthansa with a 63% share at Frankfurt and Munich, comes close. Even Emirates has only a 59% share at Dubai.

American travellers are captives of the incumbent carrier far more than is seen at other airports around the globe. Singapore Airlines has only a 34% share at its home base (48% with Silk Air and Tiger), and BA provides less than half the seats at Heathrow.

Low cost presence

Again, there is wide variation as to the inroads made by low cost carriers. The following chart shows the percentage of seats supplied by the legacy carriers at a number of the ranked airports. Some have virtually no competitors from that sector and are likely to maintain that legacy power.

While the UK has a vibrant low cost sector, none has chosen to serve LHR with its congestion and high costs. That will likely continue.

Legacy share at world's top 30 airports

IAH

100

LHR

99

MIA

98

DFW

96

HKG

95

HND

90

DXB

87

AMS

82

BKK

78

LAX

77

SIN

76

JFK

72

PHX

64

SYD

63

MCO

45

LAS

40

In the US, many hub cities have second airports at which the LCCs cluster. In Houston, it is Hobby, in Dallas, Love Field, Chicago has Midway and South Florida’s low cost airport is Fort Lauderdale. Most of the low cost operators have chosen the alternative base and are unlikely to move.

There is a flurry of LCC activity afoot in Japan and Haneda will most likely see that carrier group grow over time.

Then there is a group of airports that clearly mirrors the average global penetration level by LCCs of about 30% and they have a “normal” representation.

Near the bottom of the list are those airports that have been significantly affected by low cost carriers and probably owe their passenger figures to that availability of cheaper fares. In the US that is certainly true of Orlando and Las Vegas.

With Thai and Singapore Airlines contemplating new low cost offspring, there is a good chance that the legacy seats will decline at both airports. In China, the presence of LCCs will be dependent on government policy.

The top 30 at a glance

The following master chart provides a quick summary of the findings revealed by our individual reviews. Most of the airports rate a comment as to some notable fact or quirk that emerged during the research, but, in a few cases there was little to add as the straightforward assumptions made generally held true.

Each of the full reviews is available at centreforaviation.com.

Carrier/Alliance concentration at top 30 airports in 2010

Airport

Carrier %

Alliance %

Notes

ATL

DL 78

ST 79

 

PEK

CA 41

S 86

Moved up 47 spots in a decade, top seat producers all Chinese

ORD

UA 47

S 53

Dual hub AA 37%, oneworld 38%

LHR

BA 49

O 48

Little growth potential

HND

NH 48

S 49

Dual hub: JL 33%

LAX

AA 17 UA 17

S 29

Very diverse mix Other 22%, WN 14%, oneworld 22%, unaligned 34%

CDG

AF 56

ST 62

 

DFW

AA 87

O 87

Virtually no LCCs. All located at DAL nearby.

FRA

LH 63

S 78

Star has 86% of the Germany/US capacity

DEN

UA 39

UN 47

Multiple hub: WN 22%, F9 21%

HKG

CX 34 (48)

O 37

48% includes Dragonair

MAD

IB 43

O 47

Unaligned 27%, lots of LCC, virtually no Asia service or oneword connections

DXB

EK 59

UN 92

 

JFK

B6 24 DL 24

UN 37

Multiple hub: AA 17% SkyTeam 29%, oneworld 24%. Star at EWR 78%.

AMS

KL 49

ST 61

 

CGK

LION AIR 32

UN 92

Garuda 29%, 74% domestic

BKK

TG 39

S 46

79 airlines serving the airport--a record for Asia, unaligned 43%

SIN

SQ 34 (48)

UN 47

48% includes SilkAir and Tiger. Star 41%

CAN

CZ 48

ST 49

83% domestic, all Chinese carriers in top seat producers

PVG

MU 34

UN 61

50% domestic

IAH

CO 84

S 91

 

LAS

WN 43

UN 65

5% international, 60% LCC

SFO

UA 40 (44)

S 54

44% includes CO, unaligned 27%

PHX

US 48

S 52

WN 34%, unaligned 38%

CLT

US 89

S 92

Virtually no "other"

ROM

AZ 46

ST 51

AZ with limited transit traffic, primarily O & D, not the biggest city

SYD

QF 37 (51)

OW 41

Unaligned 49%, decline in legacy service, growth by Gulf carriers, battle for LAX

MIA

AA 70

OW 73

Most international US airport, 54% international

MCO

WN 38*

UN 60

* post merger, world's largest entertainment complex, low yield

MUC

LH 63

S 72

co-hub with FRA

Next year and beyond

Global aviation is clearly in a period of transition. Low cost carriers carry around 30% of the world’s passengers and many of those carriers operate at alternative airports or terminals.

The airlines in the Gulf, and Turkish, are causing many passengers to rethink longstanding connecting patterns and try new routes. Both the airlines and the airports will continue to challenge the established order.

The increased traffic in Asia, with special focus on China, ensures that the number of Asian airports in the top tier will continue increase, at the expense of US and European airports. There are numerous cities in China with millions of inhabitants that have little or no direct international service, with most passengers presently passing through Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou or Hong Kong. Sooner or later that traffic will begin to go direct to many more points, perhaps putting cities like Shenzhen or Chongqing on the list.

Closing observations

Prediction is a perilous task, usually fraught with error and embarrassment but there are some assumptions that carry little risk.

  • Beijing will likely move to number one and the other Chinese airports already on the list will climb higher.
  • The real challenger, over time, for the top spot is Dubai, especially as all those A380s fill the fleet. Within a few years, Abu Dhabi and Doha will probably also make their appearance.
  • Istanbul’s Ataturk will doubtless appear in the next few years but it is limited by its location and much of the near-term growth will be at Sabiha Gokcen. When the replacement for Ataturk is brought on line, another climb on the charts can be anticipated.
  • With the revitalisation and expansion of Garuda, Jakarta will see more international service and will probably move up.
  • The exact effect of the opening of Berlin’s BBI is yet to be seen, but it will hugely improve access to Germany’s most populous city and will definitely influence traffic to/from Europe’s richest nation.
  • While the US market is huge, it is also mature and unlikely to exhibit any big growth spurt over the next decade. The legacy carriers continue to cut capacity and the LCCs are growing much more carefully, so that exponential growth elsewhere, contrasted with minimal growth at US points, will see more US airports fall off the list.
  • Though it will remain a key point in every airline’s network, Heathrow, absent some ability to grow, will also see its position decline. More A380s may marginally increase passenger numbers, but at some point the saturation level will be reached.
  • South America has a burgeoning industry and if Sao Paulo had all its traffic centred at one airport, it would have made the list. But there are still infrastructure issues at Brazil’s airports and those will have to be remedied before they break into the club.
  • The position of India’s largest airports remains a bit less clear. Domestic traffic is growing at a rapid clip, but Air India is ailing and both Kingfisher and Jet Airways continue to struggle in the international sector. The abundance of service via the Gulf limits the potential of many routes. The ability to travel Newcastle to Kochi, for example, with a single stop makes other, more complicated routes, less viable.
  • Finally, the spread of long-haul, low-cost travel might, over time, again rejigger the basics and prompt yet another huge shift.

Unique synergy

Airlines and major airports have one of the most prominent symbiotic relationships. Each needs the other to exist and yet they have very different ways of seeing the world. Airlines are composed of mobile parts that can be redeployed virtually overnight and are focused on the needs of a group in constant motion, travellers.

Airports are fixed and expensive pieces of infrastructure with no immediate alternative use and a generally fixed clientele of area residents. Change is expensive and requires long lead times. An airport like St Louis, which lost its carrier and then its traffic after building a new, now unnecessary runway, is a prime example of the dilemma.

And yet they have to work together and there is some evidence that common purpose and shared goals can create a good experience for the traveler both on the ground and in the air – Changi is a prime exhibit.

Future traffic growth at the world’s airports will depend on the ability to provide a workable and friendly infrastructure that attracts large number of travellers. Future rankings will, in some ways, reveal those who have done that the best.


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