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Atlanta Vs. Chicago: Who Has The World’s Busiest Airport?

For the 17th straight year, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was named the busiest passenger airport in the world, but was edged out by Chicago's O'Hare International Airport based on total number of flights.
For the 17th straight year, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was named the busiest passenger airport in the world, but was edged out by Chicago's O'Hare International Airport based on total number of flights.
Credit David Goldman / Associated Press
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Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport announced last week it is once again the world’s busiest airport, just weeks after Chicago officials announced O’Hare International Airport had regained the world’s busiest title.

So who’s right?

Technically, they both are.

“If you torture the data enough, you can get it to say anything,” Seth Kaplan, an airline analyst with Airline Weekly, says.

In 2014, Hartsfield-Jackson topped all airports with more 96 million passengers, an increase of 1.7 million over the previous year.  

But for the first time since 2005, O’Hare outpaced Atlanta on sheer number of landings and take-offs by about 13,000 flights according to federal aviation data.

Kaplan says that’s in part because of Delta’s move to a bigger aircraft, the consolidation of flight routes and a handful of airline mergers in more recent years.

But in the fight for the busiest airport title, he says Atlanta has the slight edge on Chicago.

“In the end, for busiest airport, it makes more sense to look at how many passengers, how many seats and so forth,” Kaplan says.

But what’s at stake here? Why is being the busiest airport so important to a city?

Airline analyst Robert Mann Jr. of R.W. Mann & Co. says a big airport means big business, especially in today’s global economy.

“Airports are really now competing on the ability to lure new international activity,” Mann says.

For example, Hartsfield-Jackson officials say the airport netted the region more than $64 billion last year. The airport also employs 63,000 people who live in the region.

But Kaplan says ultimately as long the airport remains in the top among flights and passengers holding the “World’s Busiest” title doesn’t mean much.

“Whether one city has slightly more of it than another is more bragging rights than anything that adds up to real money,” he says.

Threats to Atlanta’s Busiest Passenger Airport title aren’t coming from Chicago, but from overseas.

Beijing, China has been inching in on Atlanta’s 17-year hold on the moniker, while Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is expanding its airport at rapid pace.