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Forbes: America's Most Crowded Airports

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Packing in Passengers

The neighborhood streets outside Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport are mostly quiet during the day, with few people on the sidewalks. Sometimes the only noise you can hear is the sound of leaves rustling on the trees.

Inside the airport, things are rather different. On an average day more than 250,000 travelers pass through its terminals on nearly 2,500 flights. The sound on the air is a cacophony of announcements, beeping luggage carts and chattering voices. There are people everywhere –so many people, that according to a new analysis of airport capacity, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) ranks as the most crowded airport in America.

To determine the rankings of America’s Most Crowded Airports, we looked at the twenty largest airports in the U.S. in terms of 2012 passenger traffic, and then compared that traffic to each airport’s available terminal space and gates. The final ranking is based on an equal weighting of passengers per square foot and passengers per gate. (We looked at both because square feet of terminal space per passenger can be deceptive if taken on its own; there might be a huge airport that forces all its passengers down into just a few gates, so it would still be crowded, despite the high square footage.)

Hartsfield–Jackson counts as America’s most crowded because it funnels a huge amount of traffic –95,462,867 passengers in 2012, according to preliminary data from the non-profit trade group Airports Council International–through 6.8 million square feet of terminal space and 203 gates. In contrast, the least crowded major airport on our list, Florida’s Miami International, only has 40% of Hartsfield-Jackson’s traffic, but it has 7.5 million square feet of terminal space; Miami has only 127 gates, but that’s still a far higher ratio of people to gates.

You can blame geography for much of the crowds at Hartsfield–Jackson. Atlanta is within a two-hour flight of 80% of the population of the United States, and the airport is ideally situated to handle traffic for most of the southeastern U.S. It’s the primary hub of Delta Air Lines , and a major hub for Southwest Airlines .

It’s also the only game in town. “If you look at the Atlanta area… we’re the only passenger aviation airport here for six million people,” says Louis Miller, aviation general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson. “But it’s working very well.”

Despite the crowds, Hartsfield-Jackson does perform well for its passengers; according to global flight and airport information company Flightstats, Inc., the airport had an on-time departure rate of 81.6% in April, well above the 74.3% average for top international airports.

Hartsfield-Jackson is currently updating its master plan to find more ways to move passengers through the airport quickly, according to Miller, though analyses have suggested the airport has plenty of space and shouldn’t need to expand its terminals within the next five years.

On the other hand, the second most crowded major American airport, Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) in Charlotte, North Carolina, has big plans to grow. At present, Douglas is one of the smallest airports on our list, with just 1.8 million square feet of terminal space. But the airport is in the middle of a massive expansion that will add a variety of new gates and facilities by the end of 2015.

-David M. Ewalt, Forbes Staff

(AP Photo/David Goldman)

More From Forbes:
America’s Best Airlines
Topflight Airport Lounges
The 10 Most Traffic Congested Cities In The World



The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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