The Busiest Airports in the USA

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When is the last time you stopped to consider the incredible feat of engineering, organization, and talent that makes up a modern American airport?

Our airports started as strips of flattened land and have evolved into bustling metropolises, complete with shops, restaurants, lounges, security, sanitation, special events, museums, and cultural exhibits. But the comparison doesn’t stop there — modern airports in the United States actually serve so many passengers annually that they are bigger than our biggest cities.

Busy airports are often larger than the entire population of their surrounding city — and they sometimes take up more land, too. But unlike hometowns where residents may spend their lives, the residents of an airport live there for just a few hours before whirling off to some new part of the world far away.

Our country’s airports handle an astonishing number of passengers each year. Yet they also manage to provide tranquil environments like Salt Lake City International Airport‘s huge picture windows that show off the surrounding scenery. Or each of the four largest Hawaiian airports, where travelers are welcomed with floral leis.

To help demonstrate just how enormous the busiest airports in the United States are, we’ve collected some fascinating facts and statistics about the top 10 in this list. And remember to check out our infographic for a visual comparison of these locations!

1. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Atlanta, Georgia.

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ATL has been declared the most traveled airport in the world for the past 19 years straight. Even though the airport serves a staggering 100 million passengers each year, it’s still growing by an average 5.5% each year in passenger traffic. Every single day, more than 260,000 passengers come through this busy airport, which would make it the 74th biggest city in the United States (just after Orlando). Perhaps even crazier, Hartsfield-Jackson serves 20 times as many passengers annually as the entire Atlanta metropolitan area — and Delta Airlines alone flies more than 75% of those passengers. That’s one airline flying more passengers each month than the population of most world cities.

2. O’Hare, Chicago, Illinois.

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O’Hare was originally a useful in-between fuel stop for trans-continental and international flights. Today, though planes can fly longer and farther, the Windy City remains a preferred waypoint, and has become the second largest airport in the U.S. and the fourth largest in the world. It also moves nearly 2 million metric tonnes of cargo each year on top of its tens of millions of annual passengers.

Chicago’s airport has the dubious distinction of being voted both “Best Airport in America” by readers of Business Traveler Magazine (1998-2003) and Global Traveler Magazine (2004-2007), but also single-handedly accounting for nearly 20% the cancellations and delays in the United States.

3. Los Angeles International Airport, California.

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LAX is the third biggest airport in the USA and 7th in the world. Despite its already-enormous level of passenger traffic, the airport of the City of Angels is growing at more than 6% per year and leapfrogging up the leaderboards.

It handles the most origin and destination passengers (not connecting) in the world. The airport also handles more than 2 million metric tonnes of cargo per year which makes it the only US airport besides Chicago to rank in the top 5 for traffic and cargo. And since it’s the largest airport on the West Coast and experiences beautiful weather just about constantly, space programs sometimes share space with the airplanes. On September 21, 2012, the space shuttle Endeavor landed at LAX, causing freeway jams while 10,000 people watched.

That’s not the only famous attraction this airport has. It’s long been the airport to find celebrities walking the airport or seated on your flight, and you might have to push through a group of paparazzi to check your bags!

4. Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas.

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There’s plenty to “love” about DFW, which opened in 1974 (airport humor here! Prior to this, the only local airport serving this part of North Texas was Love Field). Today, DFW serves about 64 million passengers, the equivalent of the entire population of France or the United Kingdom. It sees 5.3 million passengers a month, about the size of the population of Minnesota. Part of its appeal is its ongoing efforts to be part of the community. One of the most popular spots is Founders’ Plaza, a popular viewing area where the public can watch planes landing and taking off.

5. JFK Airport, New York.

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The former Idewild Airport in Queens serves 56.8 million passengers annually, nearly triple the state’s population of 19.2 million, and nearly six times the population of New York City. In 1963, the airport was renamed to honor President John F. Kennedy following his assassination.

It has received major renovations over the years, but has maintained the basic model of a central tower surrounded by six terminals. JFK was also designed to easily connect with the area’s light rail service and other public transit options. And even though the airport has a high number of international travelers and cargo shipping, and is one of the East Coast’s prime airports for travelers to and from Puerto Rico, the overwhelming majority of flights go straight to the West Coast to either Los Angeles or San Francisco.

6. Denver International Airport, Colorado.

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Fasten your seatbelt and get your tray table up – sometimes the entry can be a little bumpy into the Mile High City. But that’s to be expected when you’re flying in above the Rocky Mountains; there’s beautiful scenery but unpredictable weather patterns. But the occasional turbulence is worth the journey to this scenic airport. There are plenty of wide windows, public art, and natural light, giving a feeling of walking around in a classy, spacious atrium rather than a cramped terminal found in other cities. Denver is the largest U.S. airport in terms of total land area, 52.4 square miles, roughly twice the size of Manhattan, and sees about 54 million passengers yearly, more than 10 times the population of Colorado and nearly 20 times the population of the Denver metro area (5 million and 2.8 million, respectively.)

7. San Francisco International, California.

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Similar to the Bay Area’s economy, this area has weathered several ups and downs over the years, and is still going strong. It’s small, geographically speaking, only 8 square miles, but offers a memorable approach that goes by the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco Bay. More than 50 million passengers visit SFO each year, or 4.1 million monthly. How does these numbers stack up next to San Francisco’s numbers? As of 2010, the City by the Bay’s population was about 837,000, so the airport sees 60 times that in a year’s time.

During the dot-com boom, SFO surged to become the sixth biggest airport in the world, but immediately plunged out of the top 20 in 2001 when that bubble burst. The airport has recovered, but it’s still not in the top 20 international airports.

8. McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas, Nevada.

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This airport has plenty of bells and whistles – literally. The main way to access Sin City via air includes access to rows of slot machines, flashing posters of casino shows you must check out and plenty of shuttle services to get you to the casinos, day or night. More than 45 million passengers pass through this airport each year, more people than the entire country of Spain!

Landing here can sometimes be bumpy, but gives you a good view of the contrasts in the manmade recreational paradise surrounded by stark Nevada desert. The Vegas airport owes its incredible growth in recent years to foreign tourists — twice as many come through LAS now as compared to just a decade ago.

9. Charlotte Douglas International Airport, North Carolina.

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Charlotte’s beautiful airport opened in the 1930’s, but only lasted for a decade as a public airport before being taken over by the Air Force and established as an air base in 1941. It didn’t serve commercial passengers again until 1954, nearly a decade after the end of WWII.

Today, it’s still a join military-civilian airport and serves nearly 45 million passengers each year. Despite its high passenger numbers, Charlotte’s airport is the only major airport in the US that doesn’t provide direct flights to Asian countries. Its domestic focus is reflected by the major airport hubs it serves: first US Airways, and then after a corporate merger, American Airlines.

10. Miami International Airport, Florida.

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Miami is the northern hemisphere’s gateway to Latin America. The majority of the airport’s 44 million annual passengers fly through Miami straight to Latin America without passengers ever setting foot in the US proper. True to form, Miami was the top source of international flights and passengers until 2011, when it was surpassed by JFK. However, it still moves more international cargo than any other airport in the country.

Airports