Dubai also saw more cargo movement during 2021 with airlines and operators transporting more than 2.3 million metric tonnes of goods. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai airport (DXB) was the busiest in the world in 2021 in terms of international passenger numbers, according to Airports Council International.

The industry body published the top 10 busiest airports worldwide for 2021, showing encouraging signs of traffic recovery. Dubai saw 29.1 million passengers last year, up 12.7 per cent compared to 2020.

Total global passengers in 2021 are estimated to be close to 4.5 billion, representing an increase of almost 25 per cent from 2020, or a drop of more than 50 per cent from 2019 results. Passenger traffic at the top 10 busiest airports, representing collectively almost 10 per cent of global traffic (463 million passengers), witnessed a gain of 51.8 per cent from 2020, or a drop of 29.1 per cent vis-à-vis their 2019 results.

“The ACI World passenger traffic rankings tell the story of an encouraging trend of recovery, with most of the recurrent busiest airports pre-COVID-19 back at the top,” ACI World Director General Luis Felipe de Oliveira said. “Although we are cautious that recovery could face multiple headwinds, the momentum created by reopening plans by countries could lead to an uptick in travel in the second half of 2022.”

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When it comes to total passenger numbers, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is back at the top of 2021 rankings, followed by Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, and Denver International Airport. After reaching the top rank in 2020, Guangzhou Bai Yun International Airport slid to the eighth position in 2021.

ACI noted that eight of the top 10 airports for passenger traffic are in the US with the two remaining in China. The biggest improvement recorded was from Orlando International Airport that jumped from 27th position in 2020 to seventh spot in 2021.


Dubai also saw more cargo movement during 2021 with airlines and operators transporting more than 2.3 million metric tonnes of goods. Overall, air cargo, which was less impacted by COVID-19, had its volumes increase by close to 15 per cent year-over-year to an estimated record 124 million metric tonnes in 2021.

Air cargo volumes at the top 10 airports, representing collectively around 25 per cent of the global volumes in 2021, gained 12.1 per cent in 2021 year-over-year. The gain can be attributed to the continued increase in demand for online consumer goods and pharmaceutical products.

Hong Kong International Airport gained back the top rank and Memphis International Airport went back to second position, followed by Shanghai Pudong International Airport in third.

ACI World estimates that there were over 69 million global aircraft movements in 2021, representing a gain of more than 12 per cent from 2020. The top 10 airports represented close to 8 per cent of global traffic and experienced a gain of 33.9 per cent year-over-year, still representing a drop of 16.1 per cent compared to 2019.

Overcoming pandemic

DXB had reported its 2021 traffic numbers earlier in February.

“Despite unprecedented turmoil affecting millions of people all over the world, we overcame many serious obstacles to the operation of the world’s largest international hub and provided smooth, comfortable and safe travel for millions of people travelling through DXB,” Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports, said in a statement.

“This incredible performance by all of our staff and stakeholders was achieved in the face of abruptly changing travel regulations and concerns about new waves of infection,” Griffiths said.

Al Maktoum to open

Dubai will reopen its second airport, Al Maktoum International, in May to scheduled, commercial passenger flights for the first time since the pandemic began.

DXB’s northern runway will be closed for a 45-day period between May 9 and June 22, 2022 to carry out complete refurbishment that will ensure continued safety and efficient operations. During this period, a number of flights will be redirected to Al Maktoum to limit the impact on service during the closure period.

The airport, which opened in 2010 for cargo operations followed by passenger flights in October 2013, is expected to become the world’s largest global gateway with capacity for more than 160 million passengers per year. It will also serve as a multi-modal logistics hub for 12 million tonnes of freight.

Top destinations

India retained its position as the top destination country for DXB by passenger volume, with passenger traffic for 2021 totalling 4.2 million, followed by Pakistan with 1.8 million, Saudi Arabia with 1.5 million, and the United Kingdom with 1.2 million passengers. Other destination countries of note include the US (1.1m passengers), Egypt (1m) and Turkey (945,000 passengers).

DXB’s top destination cities during 2021 were Istanbul with 916,000 passengers, Cairo (905,000), London (814,000) and New Delhi (791,000 passengers). DXB is currently connected to 198 destinations across 93 countries through 84 international carriers – significantly more than in 2019 before the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the number of flight movements at DXB reached 77,671 during the fourth quarter bringing the annual flight movements to 233,375, a year-on-year growth of 28.1 per cent. The average number of passengers per flight reached 154, down 18.9 per cent year-on-year.

Demand for flights to Dubai has surged since the emirate removed mandatory PCR testing for fully vaccinated passengers in February. Many flew in from India and Europe to witness the last few days of the Expo 2020 event, which in total saw over 23 million visitors since its start in October.

DXB's numbers this quarter will get another boost from India's resumption of International flights. Last month, Emirates airline announced that it will re-introduce pre-pandemic flight frequencies to its destinations in India from April 1, 2022. The airline will be operating 170 weekly flights to nine cities in the country.