Air travel has become a vital piece of the global economy. It is the most popular means of travel over long distances, capable of carrying vacationers, visitors, business people, or armed forces personnel to their destinations more quickly and safely than could rails, roads, or waterways. Air transport is also ideal for non-human cargo including mail, merchandise, and military payloads. As a result, cities around the world have adapted quickly, building enormous airports and support infrastructure to meet the ever-growing demand for affordable, available air transport. Which airport is the largest in the world? To answer that question, one must first define "largest." This article will unpack the world's largest airport three different ways: largest physical size, largest number of passengers, and largest total volume (number of flights).
In terms of overall size, the King Fahd International Airport in Dammam, Saudi Arabia is the world’s biggest airport by an overwhelming margin. Taking up nearly 300 square miles, this former United States airbase very nearly matches the area of all five boroughs of New York City put together (302.6 mi2). Its facilities include an onsite mosque capable of accommodating up to 2,000 worshippers at a time, a residential community that can support up to 3,000, and onsite greenhouses that supply the plant materials for the site's landscaping.
Despite its massive footprint and impressive facilities, King Fahd International hosts only about 9.7 million passengers annually, which places it well outside the top 100 in the world in terms of traffic. In fact, King Fahd International is only the third-busiest airport in Saudi Arabia. The busiest is the King Abdulaziz International airport in Jeddah which sees 41 million passengers annually, many of whom seek pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca.
Moving indoors, the Beijing Daxing airport in China boasts the largest airport terminal in the world. With an area totaling nearly 696,773 square meters (7.5 million square feet), the terminal is roughly equivalent to 97 football/soccer fields (130 American football fields). The terminal at Beijing Daxing was laid out in a unique “starfish” shape to enable passengers to reach their departure gate as quickly as possible. As helpful as this forward-thinking design is now, it should become even more vital in the future—Beijing Daxing is projected to become the busiest airport in the world by 2040. Physical sprawl is impressive, but it is only one measure of size. Passenger counts are another. If one were to re-rank the list of top airports by total passengers served, the results would look markedly different.
China and the United States dominate this list, with many of 2019's busiest airports, such as Dubai International Airport (DXB), Paris-Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG), and Tokyo Haneda Airport (HND) nowhere to be found. However, when one considers the unique, COVID-19-influenced situation in 2020, this list starts to make sense. Both China and the U.S are home to huge populations, both have vast land areas over which to travel—which was tremendously impactful in 2020, when so much international travel was restricted—and both are vital business-travel destinations.
An arguably more surprising result is that Hartsfield-Jackson airport in Atlanta fell from the #1 position, which it has held for more than 20 consecutive years (since 1998), to #2. Though it is roughly the 37th most populous city in the United States, Atlanta is, at maximum, a two-hour flight from more than 80% of the US population (not to mention many popular warm-weather vacation destinations). This convenient location, coupled with Atlanta's reputation as a hotspot for business and tourism, attracts more than 110 million passengers per year to Hartsfield-Jackson. However, the COVID-19 pandemic and its related travel restrictions caused a 61% reduction in the airport's passenger volume in 2020—more than every other airport in the top 10 except for Beijing Capital. This drop-off enabled Guangzhou Baiyu, which lost a comparatively low 40.4% of its passengers, to take the top spot, at least for 2020.
One might expect New York City, the largest city in the US and arguably the most important city in the world, to make an appearance on this list and certainly be among the juggernauts in the United States. However, because New York’s traffic is split between three airports, much smaller cities with only a single airport, such as Atlanta, Denver, and Dallas/Fort Worth, all exceed the traffic of each individual New York City airport. However, New York City’s predicament is worth taking into consideration, and if one combines the traffic of all three of New York’s airports, the city serves about 130 million annually, exceeding Hartsfield-Jackson by a sizable margin.
Many major cities have multiple airports. If we take into consideration every airport within a city’s metropolitan area, then London is the busiest city by air-passenger traffic. London has six total airports located within its metropolitan area. Only two of them crack the top 50 in traffic, but they collectively transported around 177 million passengers in 2018. Now that we've seen the world's busiest airports by 2020 passengers, let us examine one final category: largest volume, i.e.: number of flights. The proper term for this is "aircraft movements", which includes all take-offs and landings made at the airport.
On average, the top three busiest airports in the world each guided roughly 1,460 take-offs or landings per day in 2020. Impressive as that volume may be, it is also a notable reduction compared to 2019, in which ORD and ATL handled 919,704 and 904,301 aircraft movements respectively, for an average of 2499 per day each.
# in 26 Largest
# in 50 Busiest
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Saudi Arabia has the largest airport in the world, namely King Fahd International Airport in Dammam, Saudi Arabia.