Top 10 Busiest Airports in the United States

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So you’re stuck in a passenger boarding area at Chicago O’Hare International Airport as your departure time comes and goes and the surly gate attendant announces for the fourth time that “boarding will begin shortly.” Such is life for frequent and not-so-frequent flyers who must fly into or out of O’Hare and the other busiest airports in the United States. Here’s a look at the top 10 busiest airports in the United States as of 2010, according to the Airports Council International.


10. Phoenix Sky Harbor International

Phoenix Sky Harbor International is popular with travelers

Photo credit: Z. Hoover

Sky Harbor may not be long for this list: 38.5 million passengers passed through the airport in 2010, up slightly from 2009. Meanwhile, the No. 11 airport, Charlotte-Douglas International, boasted 38.2 million passengers, up almost 11 percent from the previous year. But give Sky Harbor its due. It’s clean, modern — with most facilities built since the 1990s — and a favorite with business travelers, ranking fifth overall in a 2010 survey of customer satisfaction at large U.S. airports.


9. San Francisco International

Photo credit: Andrew Choy

Photo credit: Andrew Choy

San Francisco earns high marks among frequent travelers and industry groups. A 2008 survey conducted by the aviation rating service Skytrax rated it the Best International Airport in North America. And unlike some of the other airports on this list with the world “International” in their name but only a handful of flights outside the U.S., SFO lives up to the billing, serving as a major gateway to Europe and Asia. The $1 billion international terminal that opened in 2000 is the largest international terminal in North America. One knock against the airport is the weather-related flight delays — it ranked second worst on this list for on-time arrivals and departures in 2010.


8. Las Vegas McCarran International

Las Vegas McCarran International has more than 1,000 slot machines.

Photo credit: Inazakira

Unlike other airports built far from the major attractions in their host cities, McCarran is literally a couple of minutes’ drive from the heart of the Las Vegas Strip. You don’t even have to wait that long to cure your gambling itch — airport concourses feature more than 1,000 slot machines. As you might expect from an airport in a city catering to the luxury and convenience of guests, McCarran has been on the cutting edge of several innovations aiding travelers. In 2003, the airport became the first to install multi-purpose check-in kiosks, good for any airline, not only in the airport but in the city’s convention center as well. And in 2005, at time when many business travelers were still using dial-up Internet service, McCarran introduced free Wi-Fi throughout the facility, billing itself at the time as the largest free Wi-Fi space in the U.S. A new  $2.4-billion terminal is set to open in 2012, replacing Terminal 2.


7. George Bush Intercontinental

George Bush Intercontinental rates first in the U.S. in on-time performance among major airports.

The Houston airport named in honor of the first Bush president receives generally high marks from travelers, as well as the Department of Transportation, which ranks airports based on their on-time arrivals and departures. IAH’s on-time performance in 2010 (84.5 percent on time arrivals; 83.5 on-time departures) ranked first among major airports in the United States.


6. John F. Kennedy International

JFK International is the top international airport in the United States.

Photo credit: Doug Letterman

With the Northeast U.S. by far the nation’s most populous region, it might seem a paradox of sorts that JFK is the only airport in the entire region to make the list of 10 busiest airports. There’s an easy explanation: Many of those Northeast population centers have two or even three major airports, while most of the airports on this list dominate their region. Despite sharing the New York aviation stage with aging LaGuardia Airport and Newark Liberty International, JFK still had 46.5 million passengers in 2010. As you might expect, JFK is the busiest airport in the United States for international flights, as airlines from almost 50 countries have regular flights from the facility. Like many other aging airports in the U.S., JFK — which opened in 1948 — has undergone many renovations in recent years. The changes haven’t helped performance — according to Department of Transportation statistics through August 2011, only 63.5 percent of flights in the past year departed on time, by far the worst of any airport on this list.


5. Denver International

Denver International Airport's roof is its most distinctive feature.

Photo credit: Ambient Ideas/

The most common question posed by travelers passing through Denver International for the first time: What is on the roof? The airport’s distinctive fiberglass roof, which critics have likened to both badminton shuttlecocks and white tepees, was designed to resemble the region’s snow-covered Rocky Mountains in winter. The airport certainly got off to a rocky start before its 1995 opening, coming in more than $2 billion over budget. It’s been mostly good news since. DEN consistently scores very well in performance surveys. Readers of Business Traveler Magazine voted it the Best Airport in North America each year from 2005 through 2009.


4. Dallas/Fort Worth International

DFW Airport

DFW Airport

DFW is literally a city onto itself: DFW Airport, Texas, has its own zip code, post office and public services. With 56.9 million passengers in 2010, Dallas/Fort Worth International is the eight-busiest airport in the world, but third-busiest when factors such as air cargo and aircraft movements are considered. Although in retrospect it seems a natural for Dallas and Fort Worth to share an airport midway between the two sprawling cities, the construction process was not easy. A joint airport was first proposed in the 1920s, but wrangling between the two cities over the location and other issues finally led the FAA to intervene in the 1960s with an ultimatum: Build a new facility or the FAA will choose its own site. DFW opened in 1974 and has been an economic boon for the region, with an estimated annual economic output of $16.6 billion in North Texas.


3. Los Angeles International

LAX's biggest problem is access via crowded freeways.

Photo credit: Karin Hildebrand Lau/

Chances are if you’ve ever flown from the continental U.S. to Hawaii, Japan or Australia, you passed through LAX on your way there. Los Angeles International was the sixth-busiest airport in the world in 2010, with just under 60 million passengers. If you’ve ever flown into LAX as a destination, you might have felt you were stuck behind 60 million motorists on area freeways after leaving the airport. Many frequent travelers to the area prefer the accessibility and amenities of LA/Ontario International Airport about 40 miles east of L.A., although traffic at that facility has declined sharply during the current economic downturn.


2. Chicago O’Hare International

Flight delays have been a longtime problem at Chicago-O'Hare.

Photo credit: André Klaassen/

Flight delays are an ongoing problem at O’Hare, thanks to the airport’s status as a busy hub for United Airlines and American Airlines, not to mention frequent summer thunderstorms that cause delays. There’s good news for travelers, though: A multi-billion dollar project is underway to add or reconfigure airport runways and add a new terminal. Despite the prospect of flight delays, ORD remains popular with business travelers.


1. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International

Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International is the world's busiest airport.

So how did what was once a tiny airstrip in a Southern city become the busiest airport in the world? First, some numbers: Hartsfield-Jackson accommodated an astonishing 89.3 million passengers in 2010. Beijing, China’s airport ranked second, with 73.9 million passengers. From the very beginning, Atlanta’s airport, which opened in 1926, was one of the busiest in the nation, and traffic increased dramatically as Eastern Airlines and Delta Airlines centered their operations in Atlanta, helping connect flights from cities throughout the South. Many longtime Southern residents still joke that on their way to heaven, they’ll first have to make a connection at Hartsfield. City leaders, eager to promote development, also pushed through expensive airport projects during the 1970s and 1980s that kept the airport on the cutting edge of aviation development. Eastern Airlines is gone, of course, but Delta is still an integral part of operations at Hartsfield-Jackson.

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The author is a longtime professional journalist who has interviewed everyone from presidential contenders to hall of fame athletes to rock 'n' roll legends while covering politics, sports, and other topics for both local and national publications and websites. His latest passions are history, geography and travel. He's traveled extensively around the United States seeking out the hidden wonders of the country.