The Airports Council International (ACI), the trade association of the world’s airports, listed the world’s busiest airports for 2021. ACI ranks airports worldwide based on passengers, cargo, and aircraft movements. Rankings for 2021 were determined primarily by the impact of efforts countries adopted to fight COvid-19.

Passenger Traffic

Measured by the total number of passengers, in 2021, Atlanta, Georgia (ATL) moved to the No. 1 position displacing Guanzhou, China (CAN). In 2021, almost 76 million passengers passed through ATL. 2020 was the first time in 22 years that ATL wasn’t the busiest airport. ATL is the primary hub of Delta Air Lines, the world’s largest airline by revenue.

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Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

American airports held 8 of the top 10 spots in the 2021 rankings as air travel in the U.S. benefitted from relaxed domestic Covid restrictions that severely affected 2020 passenger traffic. None of the airports in the top 10 managed to come close to the number of passengers they hosted in 2019.

Screenshots are from the ACI article that announced the results.

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International passenger traffic recovered at a slower pace. Of the top 10 airports all (except London Heathrow LHR) showed at least modest improvement over 2020. Yet, except for Cancun (CUN), in 2021 all of the top 10 airports reported numbers of international passengers that were between 33% to 75% lower than 2019 levels.

Cancun, a popular Mexican resort area on Caribbean Sea, soared in the rankings due to Mexico’s lack of Covid travel restrictions. In 2021, International passenger traffic at CUN jumped 95% over 2020 levels but still fell well short of the passenger traffic recorded in 2019 when CUN ranked No. 61.

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Aircraft Movements

The number of aircraft movements (takeoffs and landings) is another way to measure how busy an airport is. Under this measure, ATL tops the list again followed by nine more airports in the United States.

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Air Cargo

Moving cargo by air is an important component of global commerce. Here is the list of the 10 busiest airports by volume of air cargo handled.

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The top 5 cargo airports are all in Asia. Anchorage, Alaska’s (ANC) presence on the list at No. 7 is noteworthy. ANC is a major freight hub because it sits on or near many great circle routes (shortest way between points on a sphere) between Asia and North America. Cargo aircraft have no passengers wanting to get some place fast. Cargo carriers can afford trade fuel for payload (carry less fuel and more cargo) and use ANC as a refueling station for flights across the Pacific. ANC is within 9.5 hours flying time of 90% of the industrial world.

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Hong Kong based Cathay Pacific 747-200 freighter at Ted Stevens International Airport (ANC) in Anchorage, Alaska. Photo: Alamy

For a while in 2020, Anchorage, AK was the home the world’s busiest airport, ANC, and the the world’s busiest seaplane base, Lake Hood Seaplane Base.

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Lake Hood Seaplane Base (center). Ted Stevens International Airprot (ANC) (top). Reid Middleton photo

Final Thoughts

The next few years should see changes in these rankings as Covid subsides and the Chinese commercial aviation market, already the world’s largest, continues to grow. China’s population of 1.4 billion and growing middle class should result in Chinese cities occupying more positions in the ranks of the top 10 passenger airports. Atlanta’s No.1 position should be secure for a while because Beijing and Shanghai each divide their passenger air traffic between two airports.

Do you find any surprises in these rankings?