China and US quicken domestic travel recovery as international lags behind

By Luke Barras-hill |

Seven airports in China now reside in ACI’s top 10 busiest airports ranking. The findings link strongly to the rapid recovery being witnessed in the country’s domestic travel market.

Domestic passenger traffic markets across the globe continue to recuperate faster than their international counterparts, according to Airport Council International (ACI) World’s 2021 World Airport Traffic Report (WATR).

Worldwide domestic traffic will continue to rise in 2021 to reach more than 3.1 billion passengers by the end of this year, equating to 58.5% of that achieved in 2019.

Earlier this month ACI World had forecast international passenger traffic volumes to restore to 2019 levels by the end of the third quarter of 2024, while domestic passenger traffic is expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels by late 2023.

Alongside assessing current airport traffic trends, including a preliminary look at first-half 2021 figures across the world’s aviation markets, WATR presents its customary top 10 busiest airports ranking based on the 2020 operating year.


China and the US dominated the top 10 busiest airports by total passenger traffic in 2020, with Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport in first place (43,767,558), followed by the usually pole-positioned Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in second (42,918,685) and Chendgu Shuangliu International Airport in third (40,741,509).

The ranking reveals that the US is now home to only three of the top 10 busiest airports in the world; alongside Atlanta (where traffic sunk 61.2% in 2020), the others are Dallas/Forth Worth International (36,364,990), and Denver International (33,741,129).

Click to enlarge. Source ACI World/WATR.

In 2018, the US counted Atlanta, LAX, Chicago, Dallas/Forth Worth and Denver in the top 10 ranking, although Dallas/Forth Worth – the tenth busiest airport in 2019 – did rise to fourth position in 2020.

More apparent is the fact that seven airports in China now reside in the top 10, six of which are new to the list.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, China had four airports in the top ten.

A number of Asia Pacific international hubs, such as Beijing and Tokyo, suffered significant losses due to their dependence on international passenger traffic and as a consequence did not make the top 10.

Many countries in the region remain closed to international traffic, which remained weak in the first half of 2021 as initial signs of a surge in air travel demand in H2 – linked to an uptake in vaccines – failed to materialise.

In an advisory bulletin issued earlier this month, ACI World said international passenger traffic volumes are forecast to total 1.47 billion passengers for the year, or 38.7% of the 2019 level. This would represent a 1.9% decrease from ACI’s July 2021 assessment.

As reported earlier this month, ACI World issued data that laid bare the continued pain being suffered by the global air transport sector with airports tipped to shed more than $111 billion in income this year.

Airports are expected to lose an additional 5.2 billion passengers in 2021 year-on-year (versus the pre-Covid forecast) to reach 4.6 billion.

This pales in comparison to the worldwide traffic numbers recorded in 2019, which as reported reached more than nine billion (+3.5% yoy).

Back then, the largest total traveller volumes derived from Asia Pacific (3.7 billion), followed by Europe (2.3 billion) and North America (2.0 billion) with growth in international volumes (+4.1%) outpacing that of domestic traffic (+2.4%).

Luis Felipe de Oliveira, Director General, ACI World.


While global air cargo declined by 9.6% in 2020 (108 million tonnes handled) versus 2019, the pandemic has had a less pronounced impact on a sector spurred by demand for personal protective equipment, vaccine shipments and the increase in online retail.

However, the decline in aircraft movements severely hampered belly-cargo capacity and acted to offset gains from PPE shipments and online retail, ACI continues.

“The impact of Covid-19 has completely altered the airport sector as seen in the busiest passenger and cargo traffic rankings,” commented ACI World Director General Luis Felipe de Oliveira.

“The 2021 World Airport Traffic Report provides in-depth analyses into the impact of the pandemic on airport passenger, movement, and cargo traffic from a global and regional perspective – enabling airport stakeholders to make data-driven decisions as airports and the aviation sector work towards a sustained long-term recovery.

“The economic value driven by airports cannot be understated when it comes to facilitating business and leisure travel, trade, and the subsequent GDP, jobs, taxes, and associated social benefits. Air traffic is the lifeblood of the airport business, highlighting the necessity of government action to promote safe travel – including a coordinated and risk-based approach to testing and vaccination – rather than enforcing full-scale restrictions and blanket measures.”

For a region-focused analysis on Africa, watch out for the TRBusiness November e-zine.


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