MIAMI— On Monday, Airports Council International (ACI) released its annual set of world airport rankings, sorting out the busiest airports globally using two metrics: total passenger volume and number of flight movements. And to no one’s surprise who has ever flown through the airport, Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL) snagged first place again as measured by passenger count. It supported 96.2 million passengers in 2014, topping by a fairly wide margin second-place Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) which clocked in at 86.1 million passengers.


The numbers tell a different story with total flight movements as the yard stick. Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) landed the most flights in 2014, registering just under 882,000. Atlanta slipped to second place with only about 866,000 flights. ACI released preliminary results for 2014 earlier this year, but formally confirmed Chicago’s newfound dominance in flight volume on Monday.


The data speaks loudly to larger trends within the airline industry, whether one takes the viewpoint of passenger traffic or aircraft volume. While passenger count arguably serves as a better and more common barometer for measuring industry health – and by that mark, it’s blossoming – both sets of data offer informing insights on the industry in its current state.

Passenger Traffic Grows Rapidly, Widely

By the standard of passenger traffic, the airline industry carried over 5% more people worldwide in 2014 than during the previous year. This beats its 4.3% average growth over the previous ten years, marking some impressive growth.


Angela Gittens, Director General of ACI World, echoed the strength of the aviation worldwide, boasting the resilience of passenger traffic “in the face of the global uncertainties that beleaguered many economies in 2013 and 2014.” While a number of factors aimed to depress the demand for air travel, such as “geopolitical risks” in Eastern Europe and the Middle East as well as the 2014 “Ebola outbreak,” air travel remained “immune” to much of the effects.

One immediate observation that jumps out from the data is that each of the top ten airports by passenger traffic exhibited some degree of growth in 2014, with London-Heathrow (LHR) growing the least at 1.4% and with Dubai (DXB) accelerating most quickly at 6.1%. The fact that none of the ten busiest airports carried fewer passengers in 2014 illustrates both the vibrant health of the industry, as well as more generally airlines’ preference to concentrate most of their flights at a few hubs rather than spread them more evenly with point-to-point service. The top thirty airports alone corralled about a third of the world’s total traffic, illustrating the highly uneven distribution of passenger movement.


Dubai’s soaring growth might create some waves by itself, with United, American, and Delta waging verbal war and hurling legal threats recently against the three Gulf carriers – Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar. They allege the Gulf carriers are stealing traffic on the merit of anti-competitive government subsidies, creating an unlevel playing field and violating the Open Skies agreements. The airport’s notable placement on the list combined with its explosive growth highlights the ongoing war waged between the big three U.S. and Middle Eastern carriers.

Flight Movements Grow Modestly, Unevenly

World aircraft movements also climbed during 2014, though moving upward less quickly at 1.3%. As one might expect with a more modest aggregate growth figure, some regions improved while others saw less flights. North America and Europe bore slight declines, while many less developed regions helped bump up the flight traffic. This contrasts the result derived from passenger traffic, in which all regions globally witnessed higher numbers.

Additionally, while all of the top ten airports supported more passengers than the prior year, four of the top ten posted declines in the number of flights, with the remaining six growing relatively slowly. Many airlines, in an attempt to achieve more cost efficiency, are upgauging flights to larger aircraft that seat more passengers and subsequently trimming the number of flights available. We see this phenomenon especially strongly in the United States, with the regional airlines enduring mounting pressure and a pilot shortage looming.

O’Hare, the world’s busiest by number of flights, actually witnessed a 0.2% decline during 2014, but still claimed the top position as Atlanta dove off more rapidly at 4.7%. Chicago O’Hare serves as a primary hub for both American and United. Both airlines vie for a commanding presence at the airport and seek to facilitate a wide variety of connections for their customers, setting a higher-than-usual lower bound to flight activity. Delta Air Lines, controlling about three-quarters of Atlanta’s traffic, represents the primary tenant at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, subjecting it more to the effects of upgauging. Southwest Airlines, which completed its integration with AirTran at the end of 2014, also scaled back flight activity at the airport, contributing to the sharp decline.

Airports within the United States also accounted for eight of the ten busiest by flight activity, while composing only four of the top ten by passenger traffic. Even amidst relatively drastic consolidation over the past several years, four major carriers still compete in the United States, with each maintaining a few prominent hubs. Hubbing activity easily explains nearly all of the reason Denver (DEN), Charlotte-Douglas (CLT), and Las Vegas McCarran (LAS) appear on the list with respect to flight activity, but not with respect to passenger traffic. While none of these airports rest in major cities, they create many short-range connections for the U.S. majors very conveniently and as such benefit from rather robust flight activity.

While many fliers generally think of competition only between two airlines, airports themselves compete vigorously for the attention of airlines and their passengers, as the ACI data clearly illustrates. With oil prices remaining low and with the global demand for air travel seemingly healthy in most regions, expect the aviation sector to continue flourishing in the near future.