An airport in China overtook Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as the world's busiest in passenger counts in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic, when airline travel plummeted to different degrees around the world.
Guangzhou Bai Yun International Airport unseated the Atlanta airport for the first time in more than two decades, according to Airports Council International's preliminary world airport traffic rankings released Thursday. Seven of the ten busiest airports in the world in the pandemic year of 2020 were in China.
However, Hartsfield-Jackson was the busiest airport measured by flight counts in 2020, taking that title back from Chicago O'Hare.
Hartsfield-Jackson had a 61.2% decline in passenger traffic last year, while Guangzhou had a 40.4% decline. Guangzhou handled 43.8 million passengers in 2020, while Hartsfield-Jackson handled 42.9 million.
Atlanta officials have long prized the "world's busiest" title, which Hartsfield-Jackson has held since 1998 for passenger counts. But the risk of eventually losing the title has been looming for years, with Beijing Capital International Airport in the No. 2 spot in 2019 and narrowing Atlanta's lead.
Instead of Beijing, it was Guangzhou Bai Yun International Airport that jumped to No. 1 in 2020, up from the No. 11 spot in 2019.
While Beijing has multiple airports that split up traffic, Guangzhou Bai Yun is the major airport for that city and benefited from an earlier recovery in domestic traffic in China.
World’s busiest airports
for passenger boardings
Three of the top five airports boarding the most passengers in 2020 were in the People’s Republic of China.
1. Guangzhou Bai Yun, 43.8 million in 2020, down 40.4%
2. Atanta Hartsfield-Jackson, 42.9 million in 2020, down 61.2%
3. Chengdu Shuangliu, 40.7 million in 2020, down 27.1%
4. Dalla-Fort Worth, 39.4 million, down 47.6%
5. Shenzhen Bao’an, 37.9 million, down 28.4%
Source: Airports Council International. Passenger boardings at Chattanooga’s Lovell Field plunged 59.3% in 2020 to 225,289 — the lowest level since 1983.
Airports Council International said its rankings showed "the dramatic impact of COVID-19 on what are ordinarily the world's busiest airports." The airport group said the jump in rankings of Chinese airports illustrate "the uneven nature of the impact of, and recovery from, the pandemic across the world."
While the coronavirus outbreak started in China in late 2019, government officials there imposed lockdowns and by mid-2020 the country was staging an economic recovery. That gave it a head start as the coronavirus was spreading across the rest of the world and driving disruptions that would continue into 2021.
Major airlines in China in the summer of 2020 offered "all you can fly" deals to help revive air travel, Reuters reported. Among them were China Southern Airlines, a state-owned carrier that has its hub in Guangzhou.
In a vast country with a population of nearly 1.4 billion, China has a substantial domestic travel market to draw on while international travel has remained largely shut down due to COVID-19.
For flight counts, Hartsfield-Jackson's 548,016 bested Chicago O'Hare's 538,211 last year. Atlanta had a 39.4% decline in flights while Chicago O'Hare had a 41.5% decline.
After a tumultuous 2020, Hartsfield-Jackson has seen more travelers streaming through the airport in recent weeks, particularly during busy holiday periods. The airport's economy lots reached capacity over Easter weekend and security lines have been longer during peak periods.
More than a million people have been passing through the nation's airport security checkpoints daily since mid-March, a major recovery from last year but still significantly below 2019 traffic levels.