ATL is still the world's busiest airport, but projections for international traffic have fallen short thus far and could face headwinds of protectionism.
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport remains the busiest in the world, growing 3.3 percent to reach nearly 107.4 million passengers in 2018, according to Airports Council International.
New numbers released by the trade group Sept. 16 confirmed a prediction earlier this year that ATL would retain its crown.
Hartsfield-Jackson once again again fended off a challenge from second-ranking Beijing Capital International Airport, whose 101 million passengers made it just the second in the world to reach the nine-digit mark.
Hartsfield-Jackson, however, had its wings clipped when it comes to aircraft operations — airport speak for takeoffs and landings — with Chicago O’Hare taking the top slot at 903,747 and Atlanta sliding to second with 895,682, growing just 1.8 percent.
In terms of international traffic, Dubai International topped the world, with virtually all of its 89.1 million passengers crossing a border when entering or exiting the United Arab Emirates. Dubai also ranked third in overall passengers.
According to ACI’s annual World Traffic Report, the top five busiest airports list was rounded out by Los Angeles International Airport at 87.5 million and Tokyo’s Haneda Airport at 86.9 million.
The airport is metro Atlanta’s largest single economic engine and serves as the linchpin of efforts to attract corporate relocations both domestically and internationally. The airport allows companies to reach 80 percent of the U.S. population within two hours of travel from the city.
General Manager John Selden told Atlanta City Council earlier this year that Hartsfield-Jackson should surpass 111 million in 2019, according to The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, which also reported that passengers were up 3.29 percent during the first half of this year.
More than seven years after the opening of the Maynard H. Jackson International Terminal, or Concourse F, international traffic has yet to reach the 13 million annual passengers the airport had projected it would host by 2015.
As of the end of 2018, only 11.6 percent of ATL’s passengers — 12.5 million out of 107.3 million — were either flying to or arriving from an international destination.
Atlanta was among the many established hubs that saw healthy growth, even as emerging markets around the world, particularly in India and China, posted the biggest gains. Some 12 of the top 30 fastest-growing airports in the world are located in those two countries. India had two of the five fastest growing airports, with Bangalore topping the list with 29.1 percent growth to 32.3 million travelers and Hyderabad ranking No. 3 with 21.9 percent growth to 20.9 million. Delhi International Airport was one of only two airports in the top 20 for overall traffic that had a 10 percent growth rate, hitting 69.9 million passengers. Atlanta lacks a nonstop flight to India.
According to ACI, demand grew more in developing economies (8.4 percent) than in the developed regions (4.8 percent) that have most of the air traffic despite relatively smaller populations. (The U.S., for instance, has a third of passenger throughput despite having only 5 percent of the world’s population.)
Africa was the fastest growing region for air traffic at 9.4 percent, followed by Asia at 8.4 percent and Europe at 6.4 percent.
ACI officials warned that despite the healthy growth overall, protectionism presents a headwind to sustaining this global momentum.
“Protectionist rhetoric – fueled by isolationist policies – has swept several major economies in recent times and this has translated into a dismantling of established open trade relationships and regimes,” ACI World Director General Angela Gittens, who once led the Atlanta airport, said in a news release. “Because aviation has strong links to the global economy and to local development through commerce and tourism, these new barriers may restrain the efficient flow of people, goods and services; air transport very much relies on open markets to grow.”
Already, passenger growth in the first half of 2019 was a more muted 3.6 percent. Air cargo volumes contracted by 3.2 percent during the same period.
Atlanta is aiming to grow its cargo volumes and efficiency, as it doesn’t rank in the top 20 airports for total tonnage. Hong Kong remains the top cargo hub in the world, with 5.1 million tons, while Memphis, where FedEx keeps its main hub, stayed second with 4.4 milllion.
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