World’s Top 10 airports 2021 – many of the previous ‘busiest airports’ are back on the list


Some indicators were evident earlier this year when 2021 traffic figures were revealed that for some airports the coronavirus pandemic has been nothing short of catastrophic, and that 'recovery' will take a long time.

London Heathrow, Hong Kong and Seoul Incheon are numbered among them. The war in Ukraine, the potential for further conflict elsewhere, and the prospect of stagflation across many economies only adds to their woes.

At the same time other airports, if they have not actually 'benefitted' from the pandemic, have at least been able to reposition themselves as challengers to the established order in a still uncertain future.

ACI's 'Top 10' airport lists for 2021, for passengers, international passengers, cargo and movements, throw some light on this changing order and throw up some surprising results.

  • Passenger traffic in 2021 increased by 25% compared to 2020, but is still down by over 50% compared to 2019.
  • Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport regained its position as the world's busiest airport, while smaller US hubs performed better overall.
  • US airports dominate the top 10 lists for passenger traffic, international passengers, and aircraft movements.
  • Airports in popular tourist destinations, such as Orlando and Las Vegas, saw significant growth in 2021.
  • Chinese airports, including Guangzhou and Chengdu, experienced further declines in passenger traffic.
  • Dubai regained its position as the top international hub, while London Heathrow slipped to seventh place due to COVID-19 restrictions.


  • ACI publishes Top 10 airports lists for 2021 - passengers, international passengers, cargo and movements.
  • Passenger traffic fell by half in 2020, then back up by a quarter in 2021.
  • Atlanta regained the #1 spot overall, but smaller US hubs have performed better in a Top 10 dominated by them.
  • Airports in big tourist regions are evident in the lists.
  • China continues to be unrepresented.
  • Dubai regains its #1 international spot, whereas rival London Heathrow has been in freefall.
  • All of the Top 10 airports for movements are in the US.

Many of the previous 'busiest airports' are back in the lists

Earlier this year CAPA published an article in which passenger figures for the world's Top 50 airports by passenger numbers in 2020 compared to preliminary figures for 2021 showed that pandemic 'recovery' rates varied enormously across the world.

See related CAPA report: Seven of world's Top 10 2021 busiest airports in China

The article also noted that some of the world's previous busiest airports had dropped below the status they had begun to regard as the norm for them, and in some cases they had even fallen out of the rankings altogether.

Now Airports Council International World (ACI World) has published formal data for 2021 which hints that many of the previous 'busiest airports' have now rejoined the top ranks as the recovery continues.

The statistics are restricted to the 'Top 10' for Passengers; International Passengers; Cargo; International Freight and Aircraft Movements. This may seem overly restrictive but the 'recovery' of what are essentially 'global hubs' permits an appreciation of the wider status of the business as such hubs historically host a full range of short haul, mid haul and long haul passengers services, operated by aligned and unaligned airlines alike and with, in many cases, an ever-increasing ratio of low-cost carriers. Painting a picture of a microcosm of the macro environment, if you like, but there is a caveat, as can be seen immediately below.

ACI World believes the figures show "encouraging signs of traffic recovery."

These rankings remain based on a preliminary compilation of 2021 global data but future (final figure) variations are not expected to be more than marginal.

Passenger traffic almost 4.5 billion in total - down 50% then up 25%

Total global passengers in 2021 is estimated to be close to 4.5 billion, representing an increase of almost +25% from 2020, or a reduction of more than -50% from 2019 results.

Passenger traffic at the top 10 busiest airports, representing collectively almost 10% of global traffic (463 million passengers), witnessed a gain of +51.8% from 2020, or a reduction of -29.1% vis-à-vis their 2019 results. So the results from these top ranking airports are considerably better than the average (approximately half the loss in 2020 and twice the gain in 2021).

Atlanta regains the #1 spot overall, but smaller US hubs have performed better

Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport regained its global #1 position, having lost it to Guangzhou in China in 2020, the latter holding on to a Top 10 spot at least, at #8 in 2021, as predicted in the previous CAPA article.

ATL had one of the largest losses in 2020, at -31.5%, which was more than twice that of Dallas-Fort Worth and Charlotte Douglas (North Carolina) airports; those airports made their way into the world's Top 10 having been placed at #10 (DFW) and, remarkably, #34 (Charlotte) in 2019.

Passenger Traffic - top 10 in 2021

It is notable that eight of these Top 10 airports are in the US (the other two in China), compared to four in 2019.

That speaks volumes about the importance of the US domestic air travel business, which continued throughout the pandemic while international travel from and to the US was far more severely curtailed and other continents were hit with repeated lockdowns and other impediments to travel.

But it does not explain why ATL should have been affected so badly in 2020 and not so much in 2021, compared to some smaller peer hubs. The pandemic continues to throw up such anomalies.

Another example is Los Angeles, where there was a -45.5% traffic decrease in comparison to 2019, but that is accounted for by a notably tough state-wide pandemic regime, the comparative relaxation of which in the latter part of 2021 prompted a figure of +66.8% against 2020.

Airports supporting very large tourist areas did well last year

It is also interesting to note that two airports at the centre of the world's tourism industries also performed well in 2021, namely Orlando and Las Vegas, as vacationers and gamblers confronted the coronavirus head on by way of theme park rides and Mickey Mouse, or one-armed bandits and roulette tables. In 2019 Las Vegas McCarran and Orlando airports were the world's 30th and 31st busiest, respectively; in 2021 10th and seventh.

See related CAPA report on Orlando Sanford Airport's efforts to attract more airlines from Dec-2021: Orlando Sanford: hoping to improve attractiveness to airlines

China's only representatives slid back again in 2021

While the USA performed well in 2021, the story wasn't so good in China, with Guangzhou and Chengdu (even while staying in the Top 10) slipping even further behind 2020, at -8% and -1.5% respectively.

Similarly negative statistics will pervade the Chinese air transport business long into 2022 and possibly beyond.

While the figures are well down on the general (domestic and international) table, by over 10 million passengers between the 10th placed airport in the first table and the first placed in this international table, this is where some of the established global hubs continue to make their mark.

Dubai regains #1 accolade for international travellers, whereas London Heathrow has been in freefall

Dubai remains the #1 global hub for international travellers, whereas London Heathrow - from which Dubai took over several years ago as the principal international airport - slipped to seventh spot in 2021 on account of a continuous stream of regulations applied by the UK government until they were dropped almost without notice in Mar-2022, prompting many logistical problems for airlines, airports and passengers.

International Traffic - top 10 in 2021

Heathrow, despite gaining traffic from Gatwick as British Airways and Virgin Atlantic jumped ship there, has slipped behind other competing European hubs such as Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris; also Istanbul, which competes with Heathrow almost as much as those three European peer airports do.

Indeed Heathrow, the world's seventh busiest airport in 2019 is now at par with Antalya in Turkey for international passengers, an origin/destination vacation airport that wasn't even in the top 50 in 2019. Notably, Cancún in Mexico also makes the top 10 in this table, having also been notable by its absence pre-pandemic.

Resort cities are where the growth has been

Orlando, Las Vegas, Antalya and Cancún between them represent what has become the only new business opportunity during the COVID-19 pandemic, a fact that presumably won't go unnoticed in airline boardrooms.

Global aircraft movements - 69 million; and all of the top 10 airports by that measure in the US

Turning briefly to aircraft movements, ACI World estimates that there were over 69 million global aircraft movements in 2021, representing a gain of more than +12% from 2020.

The top 10 airports represent close to 8% of global traffic (5.3 million movements) and experienced a gain of +33.9% year-over-year, still representing a reduction of -16.1% vis-à-vis 2019.

Aircraft Movements - top 10 in 2021

Remarkably again, all top 10 airports for aircraft movements were in the United States.

Atlanta, not unexpectedly, led the field with 708,000 movements (+29.1%), followed by Chicago O'Hare International Airport (684,000, +27.1%) and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (652,000, +26.7%).

Perhaps 'remarkably' isn't the right word, because the US is replete with short feeder flights serving hubs and with ULCCs that operate on a regional basis, again with short flights. To take a random example, Chicago O'Hare airport has 70.6% of its capacity on flights of 0-4 hours in length compared to 66% at Frankfurt, 34.2% at Dubai International, and 41.8% at Singapore airports.

It is inevitable those factors will register in global movement tables.

Put simply, cargo saved some airports...

Air cargo, which was less impacted by COVID-19, had its volumes increase by close to +15% year-over-year (+3.5% versus 2019), to an estimated record 124 million metric tonnes in 2021.

Much of that will have been the transport of medicines and protective equipment, a gain that should level off and begin to reduce as long as there is no resurgence of COVID in a more deadly form.

The gain can also be attributed to the continued increase in demand for online consumer goods, although any further increase is subject to factors such as inflation and living costs - particularly the worst-case scenario, 'stagflation' (stagnant economies plus raging inflation), which is a very real prospect in some countries.

Cargo - top 10 in 2021

Similar statistics applied at the top 10 airports, representing collectively around 25% (34.2 million metric tonnes) of the global volumes in 2021, where there was a gain of +12.4% in 2021 year-over-year (or +15.0% vs. 2019 results).

...and Hong Kong is a case in point

Hong Kong International Airport (5.0 million metric tonnes, +12.5%) regained the top rank, which it needed to do because its passenger business has been decimated by the pandemic (and much the same applies to fifth-placed Seoul Incheon Airport).

The parcels centre that is Memphis International Airport (4.5 million metric tonnes, -2.9%) went back to second position, followed by Shanghai's Pudong International Airport (4.0 million metric tonnes, +8.0%) in third place. How the extended lockdown in Shanghai in 1Q2022 and beyond will affect its passenger and cargo figures for this year is yet to be revealed.

Fourth-placed Anchorage Airport, having lost much of its passenger transfer traffic to direct flights long ago, has been building up its cargo business - notably in the e-commerce business, a fact which has been noted several times by CAPA, most recently in Jul-2020.

See related CAPA report: Anchorage Airport regains its 'prominence in air cargo'

The other main US parcels centre, Louisville, Kentucky, is in sixth place, emphasising again the value of this particular segment in the US.

Doha became one of the world's leading cargo centres early in the pandemic

Doha's Hamad International Airport creeps into the Top 10 in 10th spot.

That may appear surprising at first, but Qatar Airways, which comes under the same management, reinvented itself as a cargo carrier in the early part of the pandemic and the airline actually became the #1 carrier globally at the beginning of 2021.

See related CAPA report: Cargo demand & supply: Qatar Airways reinforces global #1 position

In any case, Doha Hamad was already the eighth busiest cargo airport by volume globally in 2019.

ACI says: "The ACI World passenger traffic rankings tell the story of an encouraging trend of recovery, with most of the recurrent busiest airports pre-COVID-19 back at the top. 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.

"As such, ACI World continues to advocate to governments to follow the data and ease travel restrictions to safely restore the movement of people, goods, and services. This will provide travellers with more travel options and boost the overall recovery through aviation's unique role in boosting trade, tourism, investment and creating jobs."

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