Airports are gravitational: the more passengers they have, the more passengers they attract.
That might sound counter-intuitive: don’t we all love a compact and empty airport? Yet the more passengers use a particular airport, the more likely it is that airlines will launch new routes, attracting more travellers.
While the standard measure of an airport’s importance is the number of arriving and departing passengers, another significant metric is the number of destinations served.
At the start of 2023, I asked the aviation data analysts, Cirium, for the top 20 airports by unique destinations. This week, I asked the brainy boffins to crunch the numbers to the final three months of the year. And the results are intriguing.
At the start of this year, the top four airports were all in Continental Europe – and they still are. Istanbul (302 destinations) has taken over the top spot from Frankfurt (274), while Amsterdam (261) and Paris CDG (259) have swapped third and fourth places.
Why should such a relatively small area of the world be so dominant? Dense population combined with relatively high incomes and a strong propensity to travel helps to explain the number of available routes. They also offer connectivity to travellers from other parts of the world.
Continental Europe lies between North America and Asia, and (less significantly) between Africa and the northern fringes of Europe, including the UK, Ireland and the Nordic nations.
Istanbul, at the far southeast of Europe, enjoys the best possible geo-commercial position; it serves more African destinations than any other airport (including those in Africa), and is set to remain ahead of the pack for many years.
Other parts of the world make an appearance at fifth position: shared between Dubai (up two) and Dallas-Fort Worth (up one), both with 251 routes. Chicago O’Hare slips down to seventh on 228.
While business might look more or less as usual among the top seven, in lower positions the changes are dramatic.
Atlanta (220) leaps four to eighth place, showing the robust health of the North American airline business. You can now fly nonstop from Atlanta – home of Martin Luther King, Jr – to Winnipeg, venue for the Canadian Museum for Human Rights – or to Addis Ababa, increasingly the hub for African aviation though still outside the global top 20 airports and well behind Istanbul.
London Heathrow is elbowed one place down and is now sharing ninth with Shanghai – both with 214. The divergence between passenger numbers and destinations served is clear at Heathrow. The UK’s busiest airport handles more travellers than any Continental European hub, but many of them are going to the same destinations. More than 20 planes a day shuttle between Heathrow and New York JFK.
Shanghai, hub for China Eastern, was not even in the top 20 at the start of the year, showing how aviation in the People’s Republic has bounced back since the near-total ban on international travel was lifted.
Beijing at 18th and Guangzhou at 20th are also back in the premier league of airport connectivity and will no doubt clamber rapidly up the table. The return of China to the worldwide top 20 was predictable – and only one other airport is a new entry. Not Doha, which is chasing the success of Istanbul and Dubai. Nor another Asian mega-hub, such as Singapore or Hong Kong.
The new entrant, at 17 (between Barcelona and Beijing) is Dublin, which has 193 destinations in the winter schedules. It helps to be the home town of Europe’s biggest budget airline, Ryanair. Yet the Irish capital is also perfectly poised for connecting passengers from the UK to reach destinations across the US.
The appeal is strong: step aboard a flight from your local airport to Dublin; once there you can “pre-clear” US border formalities and arrive on American soil as a domestic passenger.
On the eastern side of the Irish Sea, meanwhile, Manchester airport has fallen out of the top 20 – along with Houston, Vienna and Zurich.
The UK may be in gradual relative decline. But alongside Heathrow, the other two big airports in the capital – Gatwick (203) and Stansted (189) – keep their top 20 places. London remains far the best-connected city globally – just not from a single airport.
20 most connected airports by unique number of destinations for Q4 2023
Number in brackets refers to the position at the start of 2023; the following figure shows the number of destinations
- Istanbul (2) 302
- Frankfurt (1) 274
- Amsterdam (4) 261
- Paris Charles de Gaulle (3) 259
- Dubai (7) 251 and Dallas-Fort Worth (6) 251
- Chicago O’Hare (5) 228
- Atlanta (12) 220
- London Heathrow (8) and Shanghai (-) 214
- Munich (13) 212
- Rome Fiumicino (9) 208
- Denver (10) 204
- London Gatwick (15) 203
- Madrid (14) 200
- Barcelona (17) 195
- Dublin (-) 193
- Beijing (-) 191
- London Stansted (19) 189
- Guangzhou (-) 186