Long lines for check-in desks and security checkpoints. No space to sit down or grab that all-important pre-flight meal. Delays and cancellations lighting up the departure board. Few things strike fear into the heart of a seasoned traveller more than a crowded airport terminal.
The world’s airports and airlines struggled to cope with the post-pandemic demand of 2022, with staff shortages and a rapid surge in passenger numbers leading consumers to vent their frustrations. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission reported a 68% rise in travel-related complaints in 2022, amid a disrupted travel season that saw long queues spilling out of airports all over Australia.
Major global terminals always have a reputation for crowds. Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in the U.S. consistently ranks as the world’s busiest, handling almost 94 million passengers in 2022 alone. Meanwhile, research from FlightAware shows that Sydney Kingsford Smith, Australia’s busiest airport, is the world’s sixth-worst for passenger delays.
To combat the crowds and create a smoother experience for passengers, international governments and city regions spend fortunes upgrading their airport infrastructure. In 2014, Queen Elizabeth II opened a £2.5 billion new terminal building at London’s Heathrow Airport, addressing its long-standing overcrowding issues.
But where in the world can you find the most crowded airports? S Money has analysed more than 100 of the world’s busiest terminals to find out.
What We Did
To discover which airports are the most crowded, we conducted manual research to find the floor size space of passenger terminals for 128 of the busiest airports around the world, then compared them with the average daily passenger numbers each airport receives.
We have presented the data in the form of a global top 10, as well as a breakdown of the busiest airports by continent.
- Colombia's El Dorado International is the world’s most crowded airport, averaging 14.53 daily passengers per 10 square metres of terminal building.
- London is home to three of Europe’s ten most crowded airports — Stansted (7.75 daily passengers per 10m2), Gatwick (4.84) and Heathrow (3.58).
- Seattle–Tacoma International Airport is North America’s most crowded airport, with an average of 10.19 daily passengers per 10m2.
- Cairns Airport has Australia’s most congested terminals, with 6.71 daily passengers per 10m2 on average.
Bogota’s El Dorado is World’s Most Crowded Airport
Overcrowded airports are an expensive headache for city planners, but expansion is often undertaken to support the economic contribution of air travel. A report from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) found that the sector supports 719,000 jobs and adds $69 billion to Australia’s economy.
However, unlocking capacity is always politically challenging, and expansion is often met with a raft of legal challenges over noise complaints and wider environmental impact; such has been the case in the UK over its proposed ‘third runway’ at London’s Heathrow Airport. Yet global cities still press ahead with airport expansion, often choosing to relocate their city’s major hub.
But when it comes to overcrowding, nowhere can top Bogota’s El Dorado. The capital’s main hub accounts for 48% of Colombia’s air transport, and with 35.5 million passengers in 2022, it overtook Brazil’s Sao Paulo Guarulhos as the second-busiest airport in Latin America.
Handling both domestic and international flights with a footprint of 14.53 passengers per 10m2, its terminals are more crowded than Brussels Airport (13.31 per 10m2) and São Paulo’s secondary airport Congonhas (11.62 per 10m2).
U.S. Airports Dominate North America’s Crowding
More than 853 million passengers flew with U.S. airlines in 2022, up from the Covid-19-induced low of 388 million in 2020, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. As a result, consumers became more frustrated with America’s airports, and industry analysts JD Power found that satisfaction ratings dropped by 25% amid labour shortages and rising prices.
Seattle residents felt this anger more than most, with queues for security checkpoints frequently extending into the airport’s parking garage. Our analysis vindicates this, showing that Seattle-Tacoma International is North America’s most crowded airport, with 10.19 passengers per 10m2 squeezing through its central terminal.
Despite $4.5 billion worth of upgrades planned by the Port of Seattle, SeaTac occupies the smallest geographical area of any major airport in the U.S. at 2,500 acres, and there is growing sentiment that America’s sixth-largest city needs a new airport to cope with the city’s expanding population.
Bogota and São Paulo Home to South America’s Most Crowded Airports
South America is one of the world’s fastest-growing regions for air travel, thanks to the expansion of low-cost carriers and the emergence of pan-Latin airline groups. The industry has been able to fully recover from the struggles of Covid-19, most notably in Colombia, where air travel in 2022 exceeded its 2019 levels by 30%. This has undoubtedly contributed to Bogota’s El Dorado International’s appearance as the most crowded airport in our research, with 14.53 passengers per 10m2.
However, five of Brazil’s major terminals feature in our top 10 for South America, with São Paulo’s Congonhas Airport (11.62 per 10m2) and its larger international hub at Guarulhos (5.39 per 10m2) both among the five most crowded airports in South America. This is despite Infraero, who operates Brazil’s airports, opening a new R$1.100m terminal at Guarulhos in 2014 in preparation for the FIFA World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games.
Buenos Aires’ Aeroparque Jorge Newbery (5.82 per 10m2) also appears in the top five. In March 2019, Argentina’s government concluded that the popular airport, located 2 km from the city centre, was at capacity and that international flights other than to neighbouring Uruguay would cease. However, a 590m runway expansion undertaken in 2021 has allowed Aerolinas Argentinas to resume overseas operations.
Four UK Airports Among Europe’s Most Crowded Amid Expansion Controversy
Air travel adds almost $1tn worth of economic activity in Europe, but airport capacity is a growing challenge for its policymakers and city planners. European Commission data predicts a shortfall of 1.9 million flights per year by 2035 in the continent’s airports if capacity is not upgraded in line with demand.
Our analysis shows Brussels Airport (13.31 per 10m2) has the continent’s most overcrowded aviation hub. All operations at Europe’s 26th busiest airport are concentrated into a single terminal, and it became one of the continent’s least reliable airports, with delays on 73% of flights in July 2022.
Among Europe’s 10 most crowded airports are four in the UK — London’s Stansted (7.75 daily passengers per 10m2), Gatwick (4.84) and Heathrow airports (3.58), as well as Manchester (3.71). The topic of airport expansion has been a controversial topic in the UK. Still, Stansted Airport was able to relieve congestion with the opening of a £130m new arrivals terminal in 2020 to complement its original congested structure dating back to the airport’s opening in 1991. A similar story can be seen in Manchester, where it opened a £1.3bn expansion of its Terminal 2 in 2021.
South Korea’s Secondary Airports Among Asia’s Most Crowded
Asia plays a major role in the success of the aviation industry. It is set to continue its growth for years to come, with an IATA report predicting the region will produce an additional 2.1 billion passengers per year by 2036 and account for 40% of the world’s airliner production. China’s astonishing growth is a major contributor, and its government expects to build an additional 450 airports by 2035, handling more than a quarter of the world’s passenger traffic.
Yet when it comes to crowded terminals, Asia’s most congested can be found in Ho Chi Minh City. Located in the bustling heart of Vietnam’s largest city, expansion at Tan Son Nhat International Airport has been a challenge for legislators, and with 7.45 passengers per 10m2 using the terminals every day, the airport can feel cramped. To remedy this, the Vietnamese government instead opted to press ahead with a $4.6 billion new site, which is set to open in 2025.
Meanwhile, South Korea is home to two of Asia’s most congested terminals, according to our research; Jeju International (6.49 per 10m2) and Seoul’s Gimpo International (5.29 per per 10m2). According to the OAG, Gimpo-Jeju is the world’s busiest passenger air route. In 2023, the government finally agreed upon plans for a second airport for Jeju Island to ease pressure on domestic air travel.
Australia’s Regional Airports Among Most Crowded in Oceania
Our research shows that all of Oceania’s 10 most congested airports are located in Australia or New Zealand, with two Queensland terminals — Cairns International (6.71 passengers per 10m2) and Gold Coast Airport (5.9 per 10m2) causing the most headaches for passengers.
According to Australian government figures, air travel in the country in 2022 was still 55% down on pre-pandemic levels, but that hasn’t stopped national carrier Qantas from emerging as one of the industry’s most profitable airlines.
In 2023, Cairns Airport commenced a A$50m upgrade of its international terminal, with the aim of attracting more overseas carriers to invest in landing slots. Meanwhile, Gold Coast Airport is in the midst of a A$300m expansion, with the first phase completed in 2016 ahead of the 2018 Commonwealth Games. The region is now looking ahead to the 2032 Olympic Games in Brisbane, with additional expansion a priority.
South Africa’s Largest Airports Prone to Congestion
Despite accounting for just 2% of global air transport, annual traffic rose by 89% across the continent in 2022, and it stands to gain as a primary benefactor of the industry’s growth in years to come. However, studies point out that growth in air travel across Africa is stunted by high service charges levied against passengers as a result of tax regimes in many of the continent’s developing countries.
Yet our research shows that Africa’s best airport is also its most congested. Cape Town International has been named the ‘Best Airport in Africa’ by Skytrax for the eighth consecutive year, and it handles 4.13 passengers per 10m2, more than any other in the continent. The South African air industry has faced multiple challenges since 2020, from the bankruptcy and state bailout of national carrier South African Airways to fuel supply issues affecting flights into and out of Cape Town.
Africa’s second-most congested airport, according to our analysis, is Jomo Kenyatta International in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, which handles 4.13 passengers per 10m2. Despite a fire in 2013 that ravaged its terminal buildings, the airport has recovered, quadrupling its capacity to 26.5 million passengers thanks to rolling renovation of its terminals, which was completed in 2023.
Air Travel is Booming, But Meeting Future Demand Challenges Lawmakers
The world would be a much smaller place without the aviation industry, and airports are an essential component of that. Yet airport design is constantly evolving and often finds itself redundant in the face of increased demand for flights.
In the 1960s, Eero Saarinen’s iconic neo-futurist Trans World Flight Center at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport was heralded as the pinnacle of airport design, coinciding with the legendary ‘golden age of air travel’. By 2000 however, the terminal was surplus to requirements, unable to cope with 21st-century demands.
The challenge facing politicians responsible for airport infrastructure is balancing the need for economic growth with global commitments to reduce carbon emissions. Despite obligatory pledges to become a net-zero industry by 2050, the industry still accounts for 2.5% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Critics of expansion point to the long-term environmental harm caused by razing natural habitats for runways — a dilemma faced in the controversial western Sydney airport scheme.
Yet as suppressed post-pandemic demand for flights wreaked havoc on the world’s airports in 2022, the question of adequacy of the world’s airport infrastructure remains a headache for airlines and policymakers responsible for aviation around the world. You can view our full dataset below and how crowded each of the world’s 128 largest airports is in comparison to others in their continent.
The Method Behind The Study
To discover which airports are the most crowded, we compared the average daily passenger numbers of airports to the floor space size of their passenger terminals (per 10 square metres).
We sourced the number of yearly passengers per airport from gettocenter.com and divided these figures by 365 days. These passenger figures were available for the 100 busiest airports in every continent.
We manually researched the size of each airport’s terminal/s from various online sources, including news reports, architecture websites and Wikipedia pages, before combining all terminals per airport into one overall figure to compare (per 10 square metres). Our data does not consider runways or cargo terminals.
Based on publicly available data for terminal sizes, our final sample considers 128 airports from around the world, with a minimum of 10 from every continent.
The data of this analysis is correct as of June 2023.