Last updated: 02:00 PM ET, Fri January 22 2016

O'Hare Loses Busiest Airport Crown to Atlanta

Airlines & Airports | Josh Lew | January 22, 2016

O'Hare Loses Busiest Airport Crown to Atlanta

PHOTO: Atlanta's Hartsfield Jackson International Airport recently reclaimed its title as busiest airport. (Photo courtesy of Delta Air Lines)

For more than two decades, two airports have been vying for the title of "nation’s busiest hub." Chicago O’Hare held the crown until 2004, when it was eclipsed by Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International. Atlanta retained the belt until 2013, when data showed the O’Hare was once again busiest in terms of number of flights served for the year. 

Atlanta reclaims the title

However, based on data released by the FAA on Thursday, Hartsfield Jackson has reclaimed the title. The Atlanta hub served a total of 882,497 flights in 2015. O’Hare had a slightly lower number: 875,136. Dallas Fort Worth earned the third spot with a comparatively modest 681,261 flights. 

What do the data and rankings mean? Not much. Yes, they give the airports some bragging rights and extra media coverage. However, when you look at the data a little closer, very different pictures emerge. O’Hare has a high number of flights flown by cargo airlines, while Atlanta’s focus is on passenger carriers.

When measured by the number of passengers, Atlanta has been the busiest airport in America for near two decades. Because it is THE hub for the South and Southeast and a major connection point for fliers heading overseas from all around the country, ATL is not only the busiest airport in the US, it is busiest on earth. Despite its high number of flights, O’Hare is usually not counted in the worldwide top five in terms of overall passenger traffic. 

Heavy passenger traffic

In 2015, more than 100 million passengers spent time in Hartsfield Jackson’s terminals. That is more passenger traffic than any other hub on earth. Other busy airports include Beijing, Heathrow and fast-growing Dubai, which has been tagged to have both the highest number of flights and the most passengers in the near future (if its growth continues and if its expansion plans come to fruition). 

O’Hare can argue that it has a strong secondary airport, Chicago Midway, that takes away some of its traffic. Midway sees about 200,000 flights annually, and was the 36th busiest airport in the country in 2015. Atlanta has no real viable alternative to Hartsfield Jackson. 

What does this mean for fliers?

What do these rankings mean to passengers? Very little, except to tell them which airports are going to be busier. Even then, an airport with higher capacity won’t seem as crowded as an airport with lower capacity, even if they see the exact same number of passengers per year. London Heathrow, for example, is notoriously busy because it is operating at nearly full capacity. The airport is desperately trying to get approval for expansions before it becomes completely overcrowded.

The point is that there are other variables at play that are arguably more important to fliers' experiences than the overall traffic and passenger figures for an airport.  

So while being one of the world’s busiest airports, by any measure, is worth bragging rights and a higher profile, it does not mean much when it comes time to catch a flight. A well-run, well-organized airport will impress fliers more than a cavernous multi-terminal hub that can’t keep up with its flow of traffic. 

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