It has long been speculated that a Chinese airport would surpass Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as the world’s busiest, but steady growth allowed ATL to fend off challengers around the globe for more than two decades. 

In the bizarro universe of pandemic-stricken 2020, though, all bets were off. 

Beijing Capital Airport had been nipping at Atlanta’s heels for years, but the opening of a massive new facility in the Chinese mega-city funneled away some of its traffic, giving ATL a few more years of breathing room. ATL hit 110 million passengers in 2019 as Beijing Capital became the first other airport to break the 100 million mark. 

Within a matter of weeks last April, ATL’s traffic plummeted by 97 percent at one point, and travel in the U.S. was much slower to recover than in China, where the pandemic was ruthlessly tamped down early on, resulting in an a resumption of domestic travel after about six weeks of intense lockdowns in the country where the virus is said to have originated. 

Bolstered by domestic demand, Guangzhou Bai Yun International Airport in southern China ended up being the one to dethrone Hartsfield-Jackson, as Chinese took seven of the top-10 slots in a year where ATL’s traffic fell 62 percent to 42.9 million passengers. 

Of course, the pandemic represents a major asterisk, and ATL looks to be in goods shape for a recovery in 2021. Even last year, it retained the title of the world’s busiest by operations — the number of takeoffs and landings: 548,016 in total. And it also won the designation that leaders said was most important: the most efficient airport in the world. 

“Our status as the nation’s most efficient airport is extremely important to ATL,” said Interim Airport General Manager Balram “B” Bheodori said in a news release. “Maintaining efficiency benefits the airlines, the concessionaires, and – most importantly – our passengers.”

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a statement that the city-run airport is most concerned about the safety of passengers and efficiency of operations. The airport printed 4,200 stickers to remind passengers of social distancing, installed more than 1,000 feet of plexiglass barriers, put in 500 hand-sanitizing stations and provided masks for passengers. 

“During the pandemic, ATL took substantial steps to protect passengers and employees alike. Those steps are allowing Hartsfield-Jackson and its partner airlines to return to normal, and with a renewed push to reclaim our title as the world’s busiest airport,” the mayor said. 

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...