Istanbul airport posted the biggest jump in passenger numbers among the world’s major hubs last year, expanding almost one-third faster than the next-best performer as it captures traffic from Europe rivals.

Istanbul’s near 21 percent increase in passenger numbers to 45.1 million made it one of only six airports among the top 30 to post a double-digit gain, according to figures from Airports Council International. Dubai ranked second for growth, with a 13.2 percent increase to 57.7 million people.

Europe’s traditional hubs are struggling to add travelers as a sluggish economy hurts demand and rivals further east exploit their geographical position to grab a growing share of inter-continental transfer traffic. Istanbul is the major hub for Turkish Airlines, while Dubai is the home base for Emirates, the world’s biggest carrier on international routes.

“This is all on the back of growth at Turkish Airlines,” said John Strickland, director of JLS Consulting Ltd. in London. “Istanbul is a good connecting point and a more favorable place to Europeans than the Gulf because it’s that much closer. The Turkish economy is also very buoyant.”

Istanbul’s surge ranks the hub positioned on the boundaries of Europe and Asia 20th worldwide, with Dubai placed 10th.

Chicago slides

Atlanta Hartsfield — the main base of Delta Air Lines Inc. — remained the world’s No. 1 airport in 2012, with its passenger total growing 3.3 percent to 95.5 million. That staved off the challenge of second-placed Beijing, which reaped a 4.1 percent gain to almost 82 million.

London Heathrow, operating at the limit of its two runways, remained third on 70 million passengers with 0.9 percent growth, while Tokyo Haneda leapfrogged Chicago O’Hare to place fourth.

The Japanese hub’s passenger total increased 6.7 percent to 66.8 million, while Chicago — once the world’s busiest airport and ranked second until as recently as 2008 — experienced a 0.1 percent decline to 66.6 million. Europe’s second- and third- ranked airports, Paris Charles de Gaulle and Frankfurt, posted growth of 1.1 percent and 1.9 percent respectively.

The other airports to post double-digit growth were ninth- ranked Jakarta in Indonesia, which had been the fastest-growing hub in 2011, on 12.1 percent, South Korea’s Incheon on 11.3 percent, Bangkok on 10.6 percent and Singapore on 10 percent.

Among the top 30, Madrid suffered the biggest slump in passengers at 9 percent, with Phoenix and Houston also recording declines.

Editors: Andrew Noel, Robert Valpuesta. To contact the reporter on this story: Chris Jasper in London at To contact the editor responsible for this story: Benedikt Kammel at 

Photo Credit: A Turkish Airlines plane takes off at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul. Osman Orsal / Reuters