Atlanta airport loses half its ‘busiest’ title

Metro Atlanta has proudly touted for years that it is home of the world’s busiest airport, but Hartsfield-Jackson International is losing half the title.

Based on full-year 2014 figures, Atlanta’s airport has been eclipsed by Chicago O’Hare in flight counts for the first time since 2005.

Hartsfield-Jackson is still far ahead of O’Hare in passenger counts — a title Atlanta has held since 1998. Hartsfield-Jackson expects to have nearly 96 million passengers when books close on 2014, vs. close to 70 million at Chicago O’Hare.

The number of people is a better guage of economic impact, Atlanta airport officials say.

“We’re putting more passengers through with fewer planes,” Hartsfield-Jackson general manager Miguel Southwell said. “So we’re just proud of that…. It’s about jobs and being the economic engine.”

The decline in flights in Atlanta even as passenger counts increased comes from a combination of factors, including airline mergers and carriers’ strategic decisions.

Delta has in recent years been retiring small 50-seat regional jets and replacing them with larger aircraft that are more fuel efficient and better-liked by travelers.

Southwest Airlines in 2011 acquired AirTran Airways and its Atlanta hub, then dismantled the hub into a smaller operation, reducing the number of flights and replacing the smaller planes in AirTran’s fleet with Southwest’s larger aircraft.

As a result, full year figures from 2014 show Chicago O’Hare had 884,586 scheduled passenger airline flights in 2014, while Atlanta had 846,777, according to aviation software and data services firm FlightAware. O’Hare also bested Atlanta in the number of total flights including passenger, cargo and private jets.

It’s not the first time Chicago and Atlanta have traded places in the airport rankings. The two cities have been vying for airport preeminence for years. O’Hare got a boost in flight capacity from a new runway opened in late 2013 — seven years after Hartsfield-Jackson added a fifth runway.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel didn’t even wait until the year was over to proclaim O’Hare as the world’s busiest, announcing last September that O’Hare had taken the title based on figures for the first eight months of 2014.

Unlike Atlanta, Chicago is home to two commercial airports: international hub O’Hare and smaller Chicago Midway.

Calling O’Hare “an asset for the City of Chicago,” Emanuel said the new gains “will help us attract new businesses and solidify our place as the best connected city in the U.S. and around the world.”

Although mayors like to crow about such things, Colorado-based aviation consultant Mike Boyd doesn’t see airport traffic one-upsmanship as a competition with any real prize.

“Unless you’re in a bar having a beer with somebody, it means nothing,” he said, adding that the figures have more to do with how airlines route flights and connecting passengers through hubs than with the city itself.

“A lot of those passengers are just walking across the hall and buying a hot dog on the way,” Boyd said.”The real question is: Do you have access to and from the rest of the world from Atlanta? The answer is yes, everywhere.” That value is not erased by another airport’s numbers edging up, he said.

Still, Atlanta doesn’t take the world’s-busiest title lightly. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed is fond of calling Hartsfield-Jackson “the busiest passenger airport on the planet.”

And Southwell has acknowledged, “You really don’t want to be the general manager of this airport and lose the status as the world’s busiest passenger airport. That’s a really bad thing.”

When it comes to bragging rights for the number of passengers in 2014, “I don’t think there’s any question that we’ll retain that title,” Southwell said. Global rankings will be released later this year by Airports Council International.

The biggest threat to the No. 1 position for passenger counts comes from overseas: Beijing has been rapidly narrowing Atlanta’s lead in recent years, and Dubai has also been growing its airport quickly.

“We’ve got to focus on building that traffic,” Southwell has said. “And there’s never been a time in our history that that [No. 1 title] is more threatened because Beijing, China is 10 million passengers behind us….. By 2017 if we do nothing, they’ll surpass us.”

Southwell aims to boost traffic counts by attracting more passengers to fly to and from Atlanta for shopping, education and health care. He says the airport plans to work with a committee of marketing experts to target the 60 million connecting passengers here annually.

Another key part of Hartsfield-Jackson’s strategy is a $2 million international flight incentive program launched last year, with a focus on flights from the emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. The airport says a couple of airlines have signed up for the program, which waives landing fees for one to two years for airlines starting new international routes and offers matching promotional funds.

“We’re not resting on our laurels,” Southwell says. “We’re going to work on protecting that position.”

Sean Sposito contributed to this article.

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