Atlanta bests O'Hare in airport wars, expert says new terminals could help

  • O'Hare International Airport is the second busiest in the U.S., the FAA reported Wednesday.

      O'Hare International Airport is the second busiest in the U.S., the FAA reported Wednesday. Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer, November 2017

Updated 1/25/2018 8:17 AM

It's No. 2 again but despite falling behind Hartsfield-Jackson for the title of the nation's busiest airport, O'Hare International Airport's numbers are holding steady while its rival's are declining.

In 2017, O'Hare handled 867,049 flights, a smidgen less than in 2016 when 867,635 aircraft departed and took off from the Chicago hub. The latest data from the Federal Aviation Administration Wednesday equates to 2,375.5 flights a day.


"O'Hare is holding its own, but everyone expected an upward bump due to the strong economy and investments in the airport's modernization," DePaul University professor and aviation expert Joseph Schwieterman said.

"These types of results add fuel to the debate about whether O'Hare needs new terminals to spiff up its image and reduce the high barriers to entry that airlines face."

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport hosted 879,498 flights last year and 898,356 in 2016, a 2 percent dip.

Midway International Airport traffic declined by less than 1 percent; flights totaled 251,341 in 2017 compared to 253,046 in 2016.

"The gradual transition to larger airplanes makes the statistics on flight operators less favorable than those on passengers served, but many of us still expected an uptick," Schwieterman said.

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Despite all the hype over Thanksgiving travel, air traffic was most frenzied in the summer at O'Hare, with July 27 standing out as the heaviest travel day while August saw the most flights overall.

Chicago officials said in December it had been a strong year for O'Hare with passenger tallies rising by 2.4 million over 2016 with 79.8 million people. Cargo operations were also up by 12 percent, the Chicago Department of Aviation reported.

The other top five airports for flights were Los Angeles International Airport with 700,362 flights in 2017, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport with 654,344 and Denver International Airport with 582,486.

Denver saw the largest increase in operations with nearly 2 percent while Los Angeles edged up slightly and Dallas was down nearly 3 percent. Traffic at O'Hare is averaging 875,000 flights annually, more than during the recession when the average was 870,000.


"Traffic has been disappointing at megahubs like O'Hare while mid-size airports gain ground. The expansion of ultralow carriers is giving a boost to secondary airports, leaving old-line hub airports with less to cheer about," Schwieterman explained.

"Fortunately, things are looking better this year as both American and United 'take off the gloves' and resume their fight for market share, by expanding their schedules and adding new routes," he added.

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