The new gateways

Ariport terminal

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Atlanta’s closest rival since 2010 is Beijing’s Capital International Airport


In the past decade, the ranking of the world’s top airports has changed dramatically, driven by rapid economic growth in China, the development of transport hubs in the Gulf and the effects of the global financial crisis in North America and Europe. By the 2030s, the leader board will look different again

While Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has kept the top spot in a ranking of the world’s biggest airports by passenger numbers based on Airports Council International (ACI World) data, changes below the Delta Airlines hub reflect huge demographic shifts in emerging economies.

Atlanta’s closest rival since 2010 is Beijing’s Capital International Airport. Back in 2005, Chicago O’Hare International was ranked second while Beijing came in at fifteenth place and Shanghai’s Pudong International, now at number 19, did not feature in the top 20 at all.

“Aviation’s centre of gravity has certainly moved eastward,” says Angela Gittens, director general, ACI World, which has recently released its 2014 World Airport Data report. “We expect changes to occur, largely because of the rising middle class in large populations in some emerging market countries,” she says, adding that Chinese airports overall saw passenger traffic jump 10.2% last year despite slowing economic growth.

Peter Morris, chief economist at Flightglobal’s Ascend consultancy, believes Shanghai and Beijing will move up the rankings by the 2030s – although growth will be fragmented.

“It’s likely that you’ll see new airports being built and old ones being kept open. There is an argument that once you get to a certain size maybe it gets less manageable and you need to segment the traffic in some way to maintain efficiency.”

Doha Airport

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Dubai International did not figure in the top 20 in 2005, but is now sixth largest by passengers and busiest for international traffic

Airbus is banking on growth in megacities handling 10,000 or more international long-haul passengers daily – it now expects there to be 91 in 20 years’ time, up from the 47 that exist today. It sees demand for some 1,550 high-capacity aircraft over the next 20 years.

Boeing, meanwhile, takes the view that the number of seats per flight is declining slightly at the world’s biggest long-haul airports, and the number of destinations served increasing.

While changes at the top of rankings by the 2030s are likely to support Airbus’s stance, traffic growth through smaller airports, driven by the rise of low-cost travel, should also back up Boeing’s hypothesis.

“It’s not a one dimensional argument,” says Morris. “Between the big cities – New York, London, Frankfurt, Shanghai, Beijing – undoubtedly you can see a need for compressing more people into the same cabin. Particularly in Europe with capacity restraints there will be a premium on operating bigger aircraft and keeping them as full as possible. But at the same time you’re going to see a huge range of destinations that are not in that category and don’t need an aircraft that big.”

More Chinese cities could enter the top 20, Morris says, citing the sheer population size of cities such as Xi’an and Chengdu and a burgeoning middle class intent on long-haul travel: a recent Oxford Economics report for InterContinental Hotels Group predicts that 61 million more Chinese households will be able to afford international travel by 2023.  

ACI World’s Gittens adds that of the top 30 fastest-growing airports in the world in 2014, ten were Chinese.

In India too, set to overtake China as the world’s most populous country in 2022, according to the United Nations’ latest forecast, airports are set to move up the rankings, Morris says – providing the government can streamline aviation policy and help its troubled airlines onto a more even keel.

“If you look at the demographics and the economic potential it’s just a matter of time before either Mumbai or Delhi starts to come in to that top ranking. India’s got a lot of local challenges to deal with first.”

India experienced passenger traffic growth of almost 9% last year, after lagging behind other emerging markets in previous years, Gittens notes.

Elsewhere, new airports entering the top 20 are likely to be those, like Dubai, ranked number 6 last year but which did not feature in the top 20 at all in 2005, where the airline and the airport have the converging goals of developing origin destination traffic and connectivity as a transport hub, Morris says.

Future widebody

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Many European airports, such as Frankfurt, have been falling, and are likely to fall further, in the rankings

Istanbul Atatürk International Airport, number 13 last year, after entering the top 20 in 2012 and like Dubai, strategically placed, could be one. “Istanbul could move up the rankings. You are getting a bit of fragmentation there because the second Istanbul airport is growing as well. Istanbul as an origin destination and as a connecting point is definitely going to be growing at double-digit percentages for a while,” Morris says.

Gittens adds: “Istanbul Atatürk is not only one of the largest airports in Europe, but also one of the region’s fastest-growing. From 2004 to 2014, it moved from 16th position to become Europe’s fourth-busiest airport.”

Elsewhere, Addis Ababa Bole International Airport has shown high rates of growth, Morris says. “Something like 70% of that is connecting traffic so that serves as a hub for connecting Africa to the world but only 30% of the traffic is going to or from Addis Ababa.”

“Whether it will get into the top 20 I’m not sure but there will be growth because of that diversity of the economy and because of the fact that Ethiopia in time is probably going to be an outsourcing country as well, because of low wages.”

Aside from London Heathrow Airport at number three in 2014, European airports have not put in a strong showing on the rankings in the past years: Frankfurt was ranked 11 last year, down from 8 in 2005; Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport was ranked 14 last year, down from 9 while Paris Charles de Gaulle slipped down from 7 to 8. Spain’s Adolfo Suàrez Madrid Barajas airport fell out of the top 20 altogether in 2013 after climbing as high as number 10 in 2007.

But fortunes may be changing. “Looking at Europe, traffic defied the economic uncertainties that persisted in the euro area throughout 2014, with a 5.5% increase and that defiance has continued with a 4.6% increase for the first half of this year,” Gittens says.

“Madrid, Spain’s busiest airport, which experienced a contraction in passenger numbers in 2013, recorded growth of 11.4% in the first half of this year, a very strong showing to say the least.”