The infographic above displays the largest airports in the world by three categories: land area, passenger volume, and international passenger volume.
As the world is gradually moving on from the COVID-19 pandemic, the passenger aviation industry is on the path to recovery. While airlines are increasing capacity to meet the demand, renovation and construction of airports are underway across the world. Airports are an important gateway for air travel and tourism recovery.
Now, let’s discuss the world’s largest airports of each category; what elements make an airport the largest in each category? We have pulled the data from World Population Review and Airports Council International for the size and passenger volume. Each airport’s name is accompanied by an IATA airport code, a three-letter code you find on baggage tags.
The Largest Airports in the World — By Area
To hold a large airport, a country must have both abundant land and money. And of course, it is better to have a large population. Countries with abundant land and money and with a large population—that’s right, seven out of the top 10 largest airports in the world by area lie in the USA and China.
But out of the blue, King Fahad International Airport (DMM) in Saudi Arabia takes the crown as the largest airport in the world with an area of 776 km2. The USA and China occupy the list from the 2nd all the way down to the 8th. Looking at the size, DMM is by far the largest—the second largest Denver International Airport (DEN) is 135.7 km2. The other airports in the list that are neither in the USA nor in China are Cairo International Airport (CAI) in Egypt at the 9th and Suvarnabhumi International Airport (BKK) in Thailand at the 10th.
Some of these airports are worth mentioning a little more in detail.
1st: King Fahad International Airport (DMM) | 776 km2
The world’s largest airport by area is located in Dammam, the sixth largest city in the Saudi Arabia. The construction completed in 1990, and the US airbase used the airport during the Gulf War the following year. Being the largest airport in the world and located in a unitary Islamic monarchy, DMM hosts a mosque that can accommodate 2,000 people. The airport was corporatized in 2017 in line with Saudi Vision 2030 and the National Transformation Program. DMM serves more than 10 million passengers annually with 37 airlines in operation.
8th: Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG) | 39.9 km2
If you have flown to Shanghai, you would have noticed there are two international airports in Shanghai: Shanghai Hongqiao International Airport (SHA) and Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG). While the former started operation almost a century ago in 1923, the latter opened only 20+ years ago in 1999. Today, SHA is mainly for domestic flights with some international flights to Japan and Korea. And the younger PVG serves as the main international hub in Shanghai. It is also the busiest cargo hub in mainland China.
9th: Cairo International Airport (CAI) | 36.3 km2
The construction of this Egyptian airport started during the World War II when the United Sates Arm Air Forces built an air-force base 5 km away from the existing Almaza Airport. The American forces left the base after the war ended, then the Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority allocated the airport to the International Civil Aviation. The ex-military base has upgraded its terminals since then, awarded as the second best airport in Africa in 2011. As of 2021, CAI is the busiest airport in Africa, serving 11,344,859 passengers.
The Largest Airports in the World — By Passenger Volume
When it comes to overall passenger traffic, countries with a larger land, economy, and population are likely to hold busy airports. In other words, flying more domestic flights is the key to make an airport busy. That is simply because busiest passenger routes are often domestic and so flying more domestic flights increases passenger traffic. And passenger volume is often much greater for domestic flights than for international flights. For example, there were 612 million passengers on domestic flights, while 62 million passengers on international flights in the USA in 2021.
On the other hand, some small countries such as Singapore or the Netherlands do not have any commercial domestic flight. These countries are unlikely to hold the busiest airport in the world by overall passenger traffic, unless the airport serves as an international hub.
Taking a look at the largest airports in the world in terms of passenger traffic, all the top 10 airports are again either in the USA or in China. While these two countries have always made the list, they completely occupied the rankings amid the COVID-19 pandemic where many international flights got cancelled. Domestic flights, on the other hand, have returned to nearly normal operations in many countries at an earlier stage.
Dubai International Airport (DXB) in the UAE, Tokyo Haneda Airport (HND) in Japan, Heathrow Airport (LHR) in the UK, and Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) in France were among the top 10 busiest airports before the pandemic. However, all of them are now out of the list as these airports are more dependent on international traffic.
1st: Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) | 75,704,760
Once being the center for military operations during the Civil War, Atlanta in Georgia is now home to the world’s busiest airport. ATL has been at the top of the ranking since 1998, with a brief disruption by Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport (CAN) in 2020 due to the pandemic. The airport handled 2,700 arrivals and departures daily and employed 60,000 people before the pandemic. It is the primary hub for Delta Airlines. Interestingly, ATL was built on an abandon racetrack called the Atlanta Speedway in 1925.
2nd: Dallas Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) | 62,465,756
This world’s second busiest airport by passenger traffic is also the world’s third largest airport by area. DFW is the fortress hub for American Airlines, situated in Texas. The airport started operation in 1974 as the biggest airport in the world at that time.
By the way, the third busiest airport by passenger traffic, Denver International Airport (DEN) in Colorado, is the world’s second largest airport by area.
8th: Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport (CAN) | 40,259,401
Located in Guangdong Province, CAN serves as a hub for China’s largest airline China Southern Airlines, as well as for FedEx Express, 9 Air, Hainan Airlines and Shenzhen Airlines. The airport became the busiest airport in 2020 due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many other buildings in China, CAN terminal buildings are grand, which will further expand by 2025. For aviation fans: you might be able to spot an abandoned old airplane in the apron!
The Largest Airports in the World — By International Passenger Traffic
A hub airport for an airline that serves more international destinations naturally has advantage in this category. In other words, large transit airports are likely to win the higher positions. In fact, most of the airports listed are a hub for the largest airlines in the world. For example, Dubai International Airport (DXB) at 1st is a hub for Emirates, the largest international airline in the world. Emirates flies to 155 destinations in 81 countries as of 2021. Istanbul Airport (IST) is a hub for Turkish Airlines which is the largest airline by countries served.
However, this year’s rankings were rather unusual especially with appearance of Antalya Airport (AYT), Madrid-Barajas Airport (MAD), and Cancún International Airport (CUN). Some airports that had long made the list did not make it in 2021 due to COVID-19-related flight restrictions. Especially, Asian airports known as a hub disappeared from the rankings. These include: Hong Kong International Airport (HKG), Seoul Incheon International Airport (INC), Singapore Changi Airport (SIN), and Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK). These countries had stricter COVID-19 rules on border controls than the Middle Eastern and European countries.
Even the listed airport welcomed much less international passengers in 2021 due to the prolonged pandemic. For example, DXB handled 86,328,896 passengers in 2019; the number dipped to 29,110,609 in 2021.
Now, let’s look into some of the interesting airports in the list.
3rd: Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS) | 25,488,783
Becoming operational more than a century ago, AMS is the hub for KLM Royal Dutch Airlines. KLM is also one of the world’s largest airlines, having a vast network of 92 European cities and 70 intercontinental destinations. According to AMS traffic review for 2021, 74.5% of passengers were to and from Europe, with Barcelona being the most popular European origin and destination. Furthermore, 43.7% of the passengers used AMS to transit to other destinations.
8th: Antalya Airport (AYT) | 17,148,111
Located at Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, AYT serves as a major destination during the summer leisure season in Europe. More than two thirds of the international passengers arriving at AYT are from the Russian Federation and Germany. Since Turkey was one of the first tourism countries to open borders for tourists after the outbreak of the pandemic, AYT would have had a comparatively less impact on its passenger traffic.
10th: Cancún International Airport (CUN) | 13,261,951
The most unusual face in the list was Cancún International Airport (CUN), located in Cancún, a coastal city in southeast Mexico. What is interesting is that this airport is usually not even the busiest airport in the country. While major airports mentioned above struggle to bring back passengers, CUN took advantage of the country’s relaxed COVID-19 restrictions, increasing passenger traffic by more than 80% compared to the previous year. The city of Cancun was in fact the second most popular destination city in the world in 2021 after Dubai.