Which are the busiest and largest airports in the world and UK?

A look at the identity of the high-fliers in the list of the world’s busiest airports? Plus: which UK airports are best-placed to break Gatwick and Heathrow’s dominance?

Please click to view our Infographic on Airports.

Reading facts about the world’s largest airports, it is hard not to scan statistics to see how the UK compares to other nations in the world.

At first glance, we do seem to be small fry compared to certain countries. In terms of passenger traffic numbers, the UK only has one airport in the top 30 list of busiest airports (the US has 13).

And if size really is everything, then it’s a shame to learn that the world’s largest airport (King Fahd in Saudi Arabia) is over 64 times larger than Heathrow (the UK’s busiest airport).

However, looking at the bigger picture, it should be a matter of some pride that London serves as the largest aviation hub in the world; over 130 million passengers were handled in London’s five major airports in 2009.

Busiest airports in the world by passenger traffic

The UK has only one airport in the top 30 list of busiest airports ranked according to passenger traffic numbers – but its only entry did finish very high up the list.

During 2010, Heathrow served 66 million passengers. This ever-popular London airport had ended the previous year as the second-busiest airport but has been overtaken by second-placed Beijing Capital International Airport (China) and third-placed O’Hare International in Chicago, United States.

As the passenger number figures have varied quite considerably over the past few years, it is not impossible that Heathrow could again climb the rankings.

The world’s busiest airport…

But the Hillingdon-based airport will have some way to go to overtake the world’s busiest airport – Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International; a place which served 89,000,000 passengers last year.

Was Hartsfield so busy because people, perhaps still inspired by the 1996 Olympics, are flocking to see the sights of Atlanta? With all due respect to the city’s citizens; perhaps not! Atlanta owes its success to being a major hub for travel throughout the South-Easter United States and is the primary hub of Delta Airlines (the Delta Hub is the world’s largest airline hub).

US dominance

Five of the top ten busiest airports in the world can be found in the US; including Los Angeles International (fifth), Dallas Fort Worth (sixth) and Denver (ninth). Surprisingly, based on its fame, John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York was only 15th.

Six of the top 30 busiest airports in the world are European. These include Paris’s Charles de Gaulle (seventh), Frankfurt (tenth) and Madrid (14th).

Two high-flying airports to watch out for are Madrid (passenger traffic was up 12.8 per cent in 2010) and Soekarna-Hatta in Java, Indonesia (up 9.5 per cent to 16th).

Busiest UK airports

So what chance have UK airports got of gate-crashing the top 30 list and keeping Heathrow company?

London Gatwick is knocking loudly on the door of the top 30; it had over 31 million passengers enter its departure and arrivals lounges in 2010 (just shy of 30th busiest airport Munich’s 34 million passengers). London Stansted and Manchester are battling it out for the title of third busiest UK airport with 19 million and 18 million passengers respectively.

London airports account for four of the top five as London Luton finished fifth in the list. Edinburgh (sixth), Birmingham (seventh) and Glasgow (eighth) are reminders that there are airports outside London in the UK.

All of the top 15 airports suffered a decrease in passenger traffic in 2010 with Bristol International (up 1.9 per cent in 9th place) and Liverpool John Lennon (up 2.7 per cent in 10th) being honourable exceptions.

Northern Ireland

George Best Belfast (up 4.5 per cent in 17th place) is also becoming busier – it is catching up with rival Belfast International (13th place).


You have to scroll further down the list to find the busiest (and only) Welsh airport in the list (Cardiff, 21st place).

At the foot of the top 40, a heliport makes an appearance. Penzance Heliport served 89,000 passengers in 2010 (a 4.1 per cent increase on 2009’s figures).

Based on these figures, Heathrow has more passengers each afternoon than Penzance has in a year – it obviously has some catching up to do!

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