By Jill Krasny
May 20, 2019
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Like the slowest traffic lane, the busiest airport is always the one that you’re stuck in. But if you’re flying out of Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, chances are it really is crowded. That’s according to Airports Council International’s preliminary world traffic report, which crowned Atlanta as the world’s busiest airport for handling a whopping 107 million passengers last year. The report, released in March, estimates that passenger traffic hit 8.8 billion in 2018, up from 6 percent the year prior.

Despite a worrying backdrop of global trade tensions, passenger traffic “remained resilient in 2018,” the ACI said. In fact, at the world’s 20 busiest airports, it grew 4.7 percent, with more than 1.5 billion people passing through.

Of course, it’s one thing to read about the world’s busiest airports and another to actually deal with them. Which is why Julie Danziger, managing partner of Embark, a luxury travel agency in New York, stresses the importance of allowing enough time for layovers and researching connecting airports beforehand. Two hours is never enough, she says, and on several occasions, she’s had to race through an airport because she didn’t realize the connecting flight was in a different terminal. Betty Jo Currie, founder of Currie & Co. Travels Unlimited in Atlanta, gives herself three hours to navigate Hartsfield-Jackson. “The lines can be shockingly long,” she says, and people underestimate the time they need.

For those unfamiliar with airports like Dubai, which ranked third on ACI’s list, Danziger recommends hiring an airport greeter, who can go “beyond the scope of a traditional driver to meet at baggage claim.” Not only will he or she usher you past the “hectic craziness” to your connection or out of the airport, they’ll handle your bags and can lessen the hassle of traveling in a large group. If a greeter is out of your budget, check for a smaller “boutique” airport you can fly into instead, suggests Danziger. “For example, I recently flew to YTZ, Billy Bishop Toronto City airport, instead of the more heavily serviced Toronto Pearson.”

Another way to make the most of the world’s largest airports? Lounges. For long connections, layovers or a much-needed cocktail, a lounge pass is worth it, says Danziger. With that in mind, here’s a closer look at the world’s busiest airports.

15. Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport: Grapevine, Texas

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DFW makes it surprisingly easy to get from your car to your flight, but that all might change if Americans Airlines has its way, the Star-Telegram reports. For the next two months, the airport, which saw 69,112,607 passengers last year, will hold talks with the airline about the proposed construction of Terminal F. The “half-circle or half-moon design,” as Star-Telegram calls it, may lack a garage, which would spell bad news for local flyers. If you find yourself at DFW, we've created a handy guide to help you navigate the massive airport.

14. Frankfurt Airport: Frankfurt, Germany

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For international travelers lost in Frankfurt Airport, the presence of FRAnny, its new robotic concierge, should be comforting. The brainchild of Frankfurt Airport operator Fraport AG and DB Systel GmbH, “FRAnny is based on an artificial intelligence and a cloud-based voice-user interface,” writes TravelDailyNews, which draws information from the airport’s own information system. For Germany’s largest aviation hub, that’s likely been helpful — surely one of its 69,510,269 passengers needed help accessing the Wi-Fi last year.

13. Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport: Guangzhou, China

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The Flower City had 69,769,497 passengers pass through its Baiyun Airport, making it a serious rival to other major airports in Asia. Hot off the heels of the opening of a new terminal designed to handle 100 million passengers a year by 2025, according to the South China Morning Post, the airport is constantly expanding international and regional services.

12. Indira Gandhi International Airport: Delhi, India

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The largest airport in India is also among the world’s busiest, clocking 69,900,938 passengers last year. Travelers can thank Terminal 3, which opened in 2010, for making that possible, as it improved the airport’s ability to bring international and domestic flights (excluding low-cost carriers) under one roof.

11. Amsterdam Airport Schiphol: Amsterdam, Netherlands

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Summer is looking up at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, which saw 71,053,147 passengers last year. KLM is launching flights to Boston three times a week, while easyJet is adding several new routes such as Verona (three times a week) and Genoa (twice a week). United Airlines will also begin flying to San Francisco seven times a week.

10. Charles de Galle Airport: Paris, France

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Perhaps one of the 72,229,723 passengers at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle Airport will be eager to catch one of Air France’s new nonstop flights to Dallas. Up to five weekly flights will be available from the carrier, which recently signed a deal with Athens-based Sky Express and KLM to bolster its regional offerings.

9. Shanghai Pudong International Airport: Shanghai, China

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Shanghai’s Pudong airport had 74,006,331 visitors last year, so it’s no surprise it’s also the fifth busiest airport in Asia. What is surprising, however, is how much Apple spends on flights there — according to Fast Company, almost a quarter of the $150 million it spends every year on United flights goes toward tickets from SFO to PVG.

8. Hong Kong International Airport: Hong Kong

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Hong Kong International Airport has long been regarded as a world-class facility — after all, it saw 74,517,402 passengers last year. But it’s about to get HK $140 billion (US $18 billion) in major upgrades, reports CNN, which could take it to the next level. Its T1 Annex will include an observatory deck and a 28-meter-high sky bridge for A380s to pass under, and a new 12-story building will boast added parking and recreational facilities for all airport staff, plus a nursery for working parents.

7. Heathrow Airport: London, England

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London’s Heathrow Airport had 80,126,320 visitors last year, which shouldn’t faze anyone who’s visited the U.K. It’s the city’s main hub and a notorious stop for international long-haul flights. Fortunately, most visitors have little to fret about — Heathrow’s Terminal 5 was voted the best in the world at the 2019 Skytrax World Airport Awards.

6. O'Hare International Airport: Chicago, Illinois

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With 83,339,186 passengers last year, Chicago’s O’Hare is bustling. So it was a big deal last January when the Chicago Department of Aviation invited the public to vote on a design for its new $8.5 billion terminal. Studio ORD was the winner and plans to start the project, which will expand Terminal 5 and bring much needed improvements to Terminals 1, 2 and 3, in 2021.

5. Haneda Airport: Tokyo, Japan

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Haneda airport, which hosted 87,131,973 passengers last year, is rebranded its international arrival terminal as Terminal 3 in 2021, reports the Japan Times, in an effort “to cope with an increase in international flights ahead of the Olympics and Paralympics” next year. The government will add nearly 40,000 international flight slots before the events, and Terminal 2 will be renamed to avoid more confusion.

4. Los Angeles International Airport: Los Angeles, California

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The world’s fourth busiest airport, with 87,534,384 guests last year, knows its aging facility doesn’t cut it. So in preparation for the 2028 Olympic Games, it’s considering adding “up to two new terminals and nearly two dozen new gates to help handle the influx of travelers,” The Los Angeles Times reports. A $1.6 billion midfield concourse is also in the works, while terminals used by American, Delta and Southwest airlines are undergoing renovations.

3. Dubai International Airport: Dubai, UAE

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The busy airport, which hosted 89,149,387 passengers last year, is currently getting a much-needed facelift. Its southern runway will be closed until May 30, according to Time Out Dubai, which noted the maintenance has been scheduled during a “seasonal lull” when fewer travelers tend to pass through. Among the upgrades on the agenda: strengthening the runway and taxiways with 60,000 tonnes of asphalt.

2. Beijing Capital International Airport: Beijing, China

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Watching 100,983,290 passengers pass through Beijing Capital International probably hastened officials’ plans to get cracking on the new Beijing Daxing International Airport. The highly anticipated facility, whose operations will begin before September 30, notes Business Traveler, are intended to ease the former’s capacity issues, which cause frequent delays.

1. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport: Atlanta, Georgia

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Hartsfield-Jackson saw 107,394,029 customers last year, which is impressive by any standard. The primary hub for Delta and favorite among low-cost carriers like Frontier and Southwest, the airport excels at people management, says Currie, who finds several ways to pass the time there. Here’s a primer on how to do it.