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Could Atlanta’s airport be on the verge of losing its “world’s busiest” title?
Passenger counts at Hartsfield-Jackson International are down a bit so far this year, and expanded airports in Beijing and Dubai are gunning for the top spot.
For the first nine months of the year, passenger counts at Hartsfield-Jackson totaled 71.1 million, down 1.25 percent from the same period of last year.
The decline has narrowed since summer and holiday traffic is still expected to be heavy, but a reduction in flying by Southwest Airlines and its merger partner AirTran Airways led to the decline in total passengers for the year-to-date.
Beijing, China, has the second-busiest airport in the world, with 81.9 million passengers in 2012 behind Atlanta’s 95.5 million for the full year. Beijing Capital International Airport, along with China’s economy, has been growing fast.
In October, the Global Business Travel Association went as far as saying that the Beijing airport “is set to surpass longstanding incumbent, Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta, as the world’s busiest airport.”
Louis Miller, general manager of Atlanta’s airport, brushed off the threat, at least for this year.
“They’re wrong,” Miller said. He said he can’t see how Beijing could close the gap quickly at their rate of growth — which was 4.1 percent year-over-year in 2012. And over the long term, Hartsfield-Jackson expects to passenger traffic to resume growing.
The “busiest” title is mainly a matter of bragging rights, but it can cement a city’s image as a major hub of commerce.
Dubai, a hub for the Middle East located in the United Arab Emirates, had the 10th busiest airport in 2012 with 57.7 million passengers. But with the opening of a new terminal in October, the chairman of Dubai Airports said it signals “the historic beginning of a long-term plan to build the largest airport in the world.”
The second busiest U.S. airport, Chicago O’Hare, trailed Atlanta by nearly 30 million passengers with 66.6 million people using the airport in 2012.
Southwest and AirTran combined have carried about 9.9 million Atlanta passengers year-to-date, down from 10.4 million last year.
The decline comes as Southwest dismantles AirTran’s connecting hub and converts it to an operation focused on passengers starting or ending their trips in Atlanta rather than making transfers. Southwest also discontinued a number of AirTran routes to smaller cities.
That’s a sharp difference from Southwest chief executive Gary Kelly’s prognosis when the AirTran acquisition was first announced in 2010. At that time, Kelly said he thought Southwest could grow the Atlanta operation to a larger presence than what AirTran had — but since then, he has said high fuel costs have changed the economics.
“We’ve been trimming flights across the country,” Kelly said in October during a conference call on the company’s quarterly financial results. “I believe we will have a substantial operation in Atlanta. We’ll keep tuning it until we’re satisfied that it’s right.” He added that there is “no mandate… that the flight activity has to be at a certain level” at any of the airports where Southwest operates.
Meanwhile, Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines has been replacing smaller regional jets with larger aircraft.
The sluggish performance this year for Atlanta comes after a record 2012, when the passenger count was up 3.4 percent from the previous year.