Trying to make sense of the passenger traffic data for 2020 at airports is a nigh on impossible task given the dramatic declines reported across the globe.

For an industry coming off the back of a decade of non-stop growth, at largely above-trend rates, the levels of traffic falls are difficult to comprehend.

Korean Air at Seoul Gimpo airport in 2018

Source: Shuttestock

A strong domestic market helped keep traffic declines down to 31% at Seoul Gimpo airport

Passenger levels for some have fallen to volumes last seen a decade ago. And they have fared better than most. 

Traffic at other airports requires a trip through the archives to recall similar passenger volumes. Traditionally Europe’s biggest hub, London Heathrow airport, for example, last saw passenger numbers of 22 million in the 1970s.

The slump in passenger flights also had a knock-on impact on overall cargo volumes at airports because of the lost bellyhold capacity. This though has in turn fuelled increased demand for dedicated freighter services, provoding consolation for some.

While sharp falls in traffic levels are a common thread across airports, there is a wide disparity as the location, business model and government handling of the pandemic all contribute to differing operating dynamics. 

In some some cases that is evident even within the same city. Traffic data for Seoul’s two airports in 2020 shows the extent to which the global pandemic has upset traditional travel patterns.

The city’s primary hub at Incheon ranked as the 14th busiest airport in the world in 2019, in handling 71 million passengers. That, however, plummeted 83% to just over 12 million last year as the pandemic brought international scheduled traffic to a virtual halt, hitting both incoming travel to South Korea and transit passengers.

Traffic was down too at Seoul’s smaller Gimpo airport last year. But while a 31% fall was still sizeable enough to put passenger levels of a par with what it handled in 2010, it marks a relatively good year compared to most airports. Indeed, in handling 17 million passengers, Seoul’s smaller domestic and regional facility was the city’s biggest airport in 2020.

At the heart of Gimpo airport’s stronger traffic performance last year was the resilience of South Korea’s domestic market, in volume terms if not necessarily in yields. While international traffic collapsed, domestic travel – especially in the months when the virus was relatively suppressed – held up strongly. Data from the South Korean transport ministry shows that while the number of international flights was down by two-thirds, domestic movements were only 10% lower.

Indeed, Cirium schedules data shows overall capacity on the busy Seoul Gimpo-Jeju domestic link was virtually flat last year compared with 2019.


While Seoul marks an unusual case where traffic at a primary hub is overhauled by a secondary airport in the same city, it does highlight the different extent to which traffic fell across airports.

FlightGlobal analysis of preliminary traffic data collated by Cirium – covering 63 of the 100 biggest airports that have so far published figures for 2020 – shows collective passenger numbers down by 66% versus 2019.

Snapshot: 10 biggest traffic falls at airports of those to so far report 2020 passengers
CityAirport Country/territory2020 pax (000)2019 Pax (000)   change v 2019Global ranking 2019
 Source: Cirium collated data, based on preliminary 2020 figures released so far. 2019 global ranking based on pax
Hong Kong  International Hong Kong                  8,835                 71,538 -87.6% 13
Taipei Taoyuan International Taiwan                  7,438                 48,689 -84.7% 36
Seoul Incheon International  South Korea               12,050                 71,170 -83.1% 14
Singapore Changi Singapore               11,800                 68,300 -82.7% 19
Osaka Kansai Int’l Japan                  6,556                 31,911 -79.5% 68
Palma de Mallorca Palma de Mallorca Spain                  6,108                 29,721 -79.4% 77
Dubai International UAE               17,900                 86,397 -79.3% 4
Kuala Lumpur International Malaysia               13,156                 62,326 -78.9% 23
London Gatwick  UK               10,165                 46,568 -78.2% 42
Rome Fiumicino Italy               9,831                 43,533 -77.4% 51

That is in line with ACI World’s December forecast for traffic across all airports in 2020. That estimated there would be a reduction of more than 6 billion passengers across airports in 2020, a drop of 64%. 

Unsurprisingly given the relative strength of domestic recovery, airports in China – particularly those with less reliance on international routes – reported far smaller falls than those in many other countries.

Snapshot: 10 biggest Asia-Pacific airports of those to so far report 2020 passengers
CityAirport Country2020 pax (000)2019 Pax (000)   change v 2019Ranking 2019
 Source: Cirium collated data, based on preliminary 2020 figures published so far: 2019 global ranking based on passenger numbers. *reported locally
Guangzhou Baiyun International China               43,768                 73,378 -40.4% 11
Shenzhen Baoan International China               37,916                 52,932 -28.4% 27
Beijing Capital China               34,513               100,014 -65.5% 2
Xian Xianyang Int’l China               31,084                 47,221 -34.2% 40
Tokyo Haneda Int’l Japan               30,965 85,326 -63.7% 5
Shanghai* Pudong International  China               30,500                 76,153 -59.9% 8
Zhengzhou* Xinzheng Int’l China               21,400                 29,129 -26.5% 79
Jeju International South Korea               21,055                 31,316 -32.8% 72
Changsha* Huanghua Int’l China               19,220                 26,911 -28.6% 88
Seoul Gimpo International South Korea               17,446                 25,448 -31.4% 97

Passenger levels at Shenzhen, Zhengzhou and Changsha all fell by less than 30% last year, while Guangzhou Baiyun airport carried more passengers than Altanta Harsfield – which has long been the busiest airport in the world.

Passenger numbers fell 40% to just under 44 million at Guangzhou, which had been the 11th busiest hub in 2019. By contrast, passenger levels were down 60% to just under 43 million at Atlanta in 2020.

Guangzhou also outranked Beijing Capital airport – the world’ second largest airport in 2019. Passengers levels slipped 65% at China’s leading international gateway to just under 35 million. Passenger growth was already impacted following the transfer of some routes to Beijing’s new airport at Daxing, which opened in 2019.

Guangzhou Baiyun airport Terminal 1

Source: Shutterstock

Guangzhou Baiyun tops the list for passenger numbers in 2020 of airports to so far disclose traffic data, which include the world’s busiest hub Atlanta Hartsfield

The data includes all bar Chicago and Dallas/Fort-Worth of the 10 largest airports in 2019, which have still to disclose traffic figures. Four of the five biggest airports for which passenger numbers are so far available are based in mainland China.

But the data illustrates how many of the major transit hubs in Asia were particularly hard hit in 2020, reflecting both that the region was affected earlier by the pandemic and that states have deployed some of the most stringent travel restrictions. 

Passenger numbers slumped nearly 88% at Hong Kong airport from over 70 million in 2019 to less than 9 million last year. Singapore, Taipei and Seoul Incheon also endured falls of more than 80% in passenger numbers, while Osaka Kansai, Kuala Lumpur and Melbourne were also sharply down.

Dubai, the biggest airport in terms of international traffic in 2019, was also hard hit. Passenger numbers fell almost 70% at the Emirates hub to 25.9 million.

The major European hubs also largely recorded higher than average traffic declines, and most airports in the region struggled amid a swathe to travel restrictions. Passenger numbers across London’s three biggest airports – Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted – fell 73%, 78% and 73% respectively last year.

Snapshot: 10 biggest European airports of those to so far report 2020 passengers
CityAirport Country2020 pax (000)2019 Pax (000) change v 2019Global ranking 2019
 Source: Cirium collated data, based on preliminary 2020 figures released so far. 2019 global ranking based on pax
Istanbul Ataturk International Turkey 23,400                 68,651 -65.9% 17
Paris Charles de Gaulle France               22,257                 76,150 -70.8% 9
London Heathrow UK               22,110                 80,884 -72.7% 7
Amsterdam Schiphol Netherlands               20,900                 71,700 -70.9% 12
Moscow Sheremetyevo Int’l Russia               19,784                 49,933 -60.4% 35
Frankfurt  International Germany               18,769                 70,561 -73.4% 15
Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Int’l Turkey               17,206                 35,953 -52.1% 63
Madrid Barajas Spain               17,112                 61,734 -72.3% 24
Moscow Domodedovo Int’l Russia               16,389                 28,252 -42.0% 83
Barcelona El Prat Spain               12,739                 52,686 -75.8% 28

Airports in Russia and Turkey, again aided by significant domestic markets, were able to retain large shares of their traffic. Passengers were down 42% at Moscow Domodedovo airport and by 51% at Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen airport.

To a lesser extent the sizeable domestic market also moderated the declines at US airports, but the collapse in long-haul traffic hit the big hubs. Passengers were down two-thirds at Los Angeles International and by more than 60% at Atlanta, Detroit, San Diego and Seattle.

Delta Air Lines, Atlanta airport, April 2019

Source: Shutterstock

Major US hubs like Atlantla have been heavily impacted by the sharp drop in long-haul traffic demand during the pandemic

Atlanta remains the busiest airport in North America.

Snapshot: 10 biggest airports in the Americas of those to so far report 2020 passengers
CityAirport Country2020 pax (000)2019 Pax (000)  change v 2019Global ranking 2019
 Source: Cirim collated data, based on 2020 preliminary figures published so far. Global ranking based on passenger numbers
Atlanta Hartsfield Int’l USA               42,919               110,531 -61.2% 1
Los Angeles International  USA               28,780                 88,068 -67.3% 3
Mexico City Benito Juarez Int’l Mexico               21,982                 50,308 -56.3% 33
Phoenix Sky Harbor USA               21,929                 46,288 -52.6% 44
Sao Paulo Guarulhos Int’l Brazil               20,323                 43,002 -52.7% 52
Seattle Tacoma International USA               20,062                 51,829 -61.3% 29
Fort Lauderdale Hollywood Int’l USA               16,484                 36,748 -55.1% 61
Minneapolis-St. Paul International USA               14,851                 39,555 -62.5% 56
Detroit Wayne County USA               14,105                 36,769 -61.6% 60
Salt Lake City International USA               12,559                 26,808 -53.2% 89

While there is not yet enough data published to draw firm conclusions for all regions, preliminary figures indicate that European airports have been hardest hit by the crisis. Passenger levels are down 71% based on figures from 28 major European airports, while by comparison they are down 63% across 21 Asia-Pacific hubs during 2020.

Snapshot: 2020 traffic trend by region
RegionPassengers 2020Passengers 2019ChangeNumber of airports
 Source: Cirium collated data, based on preliminary 2020 figures published so far. Total includes Dubai
Asia Pacific 427,599 1,162,147 -63.2% 22
Europe 340,153 1,174,418 -71.0% 28
North America 235,490 580,606 -59.4% 12
Total 1,021,142 3,003,567 -66.0% 63

Article updated 17 February to correct 2020 figure for Dubai Airport to 25.9 million