American Airports Topple Chinese In ACI’s 2021 Top 10 List

Kevin Rozario


April 13, 2022

mod atl View of midfield complex of concourses

Major hubs like Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport came on stream soon after the grounding was lifted.

© Atlanta Department of Aviation

Chinese airports took seven of the top 10 places in 2020 but are mostly out of the running in 2021 as the U.S. market rebounded.

ACI World

Some return to normality in global aviation was revealed this week with the release of the top 10 busiest airports worldwide for 2021. American gateways took eight of the places, and China just two, with Atlanta retaking its crown.

According to data from global airports trade association Airports Council International World (ACI) many formerly high ranking hubs prior to the pandemic have re-joined the higher ranks after dropping down in 2020. They included Dallas DFW (2nd), Chicago ORD (4th), and Los Angeles LAX (5th), reflecting the strong return of domestic travel in the U.S.

The two Chinese airport that stayed in the top 10 were Guangzhou CAN, and Chengdu CTU at 8th and 9th.

ACI top 10 2021

The rankings are based on a preliminary compilation of 2021 global data from airports around the world by ACI. Total global passengers in 2021 were estimated to be close to 4.5 billion, representing an increase of almost 25% from 2020, but a drop of more than 50% versus 2019.

Passenger traffic at the top 10 busiest airports, representing collectively almost 10% of global traffic (463 million passengers), saw a faster rebound of 52% versus 2020, but still a drop of 29% on their 2019 results.

Reversal of Fortunes

All eight U.S. hubs in the top 10 saw big year-over-year bounces from 87% for Orlando down to 59% for DFW and Charlotte CLT. Conversely, after taking the top spot away from ATL in 2020, Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport saw a traffic contraction of 8.0% last year, while Chengdu also slipped, by 1.5%.

All the top 10 have a significant share of domestic traffic, the segment that has been leading global recovery. “The traffic rankings tell the story of an encouraging trend of recovery, with most of the recurrent busiest airports pre-COVID back at the top,” said ACI World director general Luis Felipe de Oliveira in a statement.

“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 continues to advocate to governments to follow the data and ease travel restrictions to safely restore the movement of people, goods, and services,” he added.

Cargo was Strong and Stable

Air cargo was less impacted by COVID19 throughout the pandemic and its volumes hit a record 124 million metric tonnes in 2021 increasing by close to 15% year-over-year. This performance was also 3.5% ahead of 2019 levels.

ACI top 10 cargo

Air cargo volumes at the top 10 airports, collectively represented around 25% (31.5 million metric tonnes) of global volumes in 2021, and up 12.1% year-over-year (or 15.0% versus 2019). ACI said: “The gain can be attributed to the continued increase in demand for online consumer goods and pharmaceutical products.”

Hong Kong International Airport HKG returned to the top spot with 5 million metric tonnes, pushing Memphis International Airport MEM into 2nd place as its cargo volumes contracted by 3%. Shanghai Pudong International Airport PVG was in 3rd place. The cargo rankings were far more stable than the passenger rankings, with nine out of the top 10 airports in 2020 retaining a position in the top 10 in 2021.