World airport rankings

How crisis altered the global airports picture

Seven of the top ten airports measured by passenger traffic in 2020 were in China, with the other three in the USA. We assess the changing picture for airport traffic and how the recovery in some domestic markets and collapse of international travel has affected global rankings. By Dermot Davitt.

With the collapse in global travel last year, the list of busiest airports worldwide has also changed dramatically. Unsurprisingly, with the early recovery of China’s domestic air market, Chinese airports dominate the top ten rankings of airports measured by passenger traffic in 2020, released last week by Airports Council International (ACI) World. Atlanta, for many years the biggest airport in the world in terms of passengers, was overtaken in first place by Guangzhou Bai Yun International (pictured above), despite the latter posting a -40% fall in numbers to 43.8 million. The resurgence of internal Chinese travel propelled the country’s airports to new highs in the rankings, and they now dominate the top ten. Apart from Guangzhou, the list features Chengdu (third), Shenzhen (fifth), Beijing Capital (sixth), Kunming (eighth), Shanghai Hongqiao (ninth) and Xi’an (tenth). DXB (Dubai International) retained its ranking as number one for international traffic, despite a fall of -70.1% in volumes, to 25.8 million. It was followed by Amsterdam and London Heathrow in the top three, though the latter has slipped down the list in the latest figures for early 2021 (see below).

Top airports ranked by total passenger traffic in 2019 and 2020

Note: Total passengers enplaned and deplaned, passengers in transit counted once. Source: ACI World.

DXB retained its top ranking among international airports despite a sharp fall in traffic last year

Notable ranking gains in the international top ten came from Istanbul (from 14 to six) amid Turkey’s domestic bounceback, and Hamad International (15 to seven) as Qatar Airways maintained its strong route network through the crisis. Passenger traffic at the world’s airports decreased by -64.6% year-on-year in 2020, with the top ten busiest falling by -45.7% - underlining the lack of a uniform impact or recovery around the world, according to ACI. That uneven picture is set to continue with travel restrictions in many places, and with varying speeds in the roll-out of vaccines to combat the spread of COVID-19. That variance can be seen in the latest (Q1) regional figures for European airport traffic, released by ACI Europe.

Top airports by international passenger numbers 2019 and 2020

Note: International passengers enplaned and deplaned. Source: ACI World.

Airport passenger traffic forecast 2021 (Europe)

(estimated % change compared to the same month in 2019)

Source: ACI Europe

EU/EEA/Swiss and UK airports saw their passenger traffic decrease from -85% in January to -89% in March – with their Q1 performance down by -88%. This reflected a ‘third wave’ of COVID-19 infections in many countries, with severe travel restrictions and bans as well as domestic lockdowns. UK airports were especially affected, along with those in countries relying exclusively on international traffic – many now operating with less than 5% of their pre-pandemic passenger traffic levels. Conversely, passenger traffic at airports in Turkey, Russia and other markets improved markedly from -59% in January to -49% in March, with Q1 closing at -54.8%. This is due in large part to airports in Russia and to a lesser extent Turkey and Ukraine, reflecting larger domestic markets combined with less severe lockdowns and travel restrictions. All of this has also radically altered the rankings of top European airports, with a marked shift from west to east. The top five European airports in Q1 all came from Russia and Turkey – with Istanbul Airport (-64%) the busiest European airport, followed by Moscow Domodedovo (-18%), Moscow Sheremetyevo (-60%), Istanbul Sabiha Gökcen (-48%) and Moscow-Vnukovo (-26%). Although Paris CDG (-82%), Madrid (-81%), Frankfurt (-83%) and Amsterdam Schiphol (-87%) still made it in the top ten, London-Heathrow (-91%) did not.

European airport passenger traffic five-year forecast

Source: ACI Europe

As an illustration of Russia’s recovery in microcosm, Sochi Airport (+47%) was the only airport in Europe to post an increase in passenger traffic in Q1. It even welcomed more passengers than London Heathrow as Russians flocked to the Black sea resort city. With the recovery sluggish elsewhere in the region, ACI Europe now predicts a full recovery to the passenger volumes of 2019 in 2025 rather than 2024. ACI Europe Director General Olivier Jankovec warned: “The figures show not only that the crisis has not receded, but that things have actually got worse for airports since the beginning of the year – especially for those in the EU, EEA, Switzerland and the UK. Beyond rock bottom traffic and collapsed connectivity, there is no escaping the fact that the financial resilience of Europe’s airports is faltering by the day. We desperately need to get the recovery underway during the Summer and are anxious to see the vaccination roll-out finally improving the epidemiological situation.”

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The Moodie Davitt eZine Issue 294 | 28 April 2021

The Moodie Davitt eZine is published 15 times per year by The Moodie Davitt Report (Moodie International Ltd). © All material is copyright and cannot be reproduced without the permission of the Publisher. To find out more visit and to subscribe, please e-mail

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