Head to any of the biggest and busiest airports throughout the United States these days and it will seem like a distant memory (or perhaps a bad dream) that not more than a few years ago, the pandemic had turned many of these bustling hubs into ghost towns. As travel returns with a vengeance, U.S. airports are once again buzzing with passengers. Consequently, airports are racing to keep up with ambitious renovation and expansion projects, a parade of new clubs and lounges for premium travelers looking to escape the masses, and a whole slew of new restaurants and services to better accommodate the flying public.
In fact, the entire U.S. air transport infrastructure system is in the midst of a long overdue renaissance as part of President Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which was passed in 2021 and set aside a whopping $25 billion to modernize the country’s airports—and better prepare them for a future that is likely to see millions of additional travelers heading into the skies in the coming years. Investments have been set aside to replace aging terminals, to reduce the risk of close calls and collisions on runways, to make airports cleaner and greener, and to fund major capacity expansion projects.
All of which comes at a time when passenger numbers are back on the rise. Earlier this summer, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released data on the number of air travelers who boarded planes at U.S. airports in 2022, making the scale of the postpandemic recovery apparent: A total of 853 million passengers boarded flights throughout the USA in 2023, 50 percent more than in 2021, and just 8 percent below the all-time annual high of 928 million passengers who boarded flights in the U.S. in 2019. Here’s which airports saw the highest number of passengers taking off—as well as what to do if you find yourself among the millions of travelers who spend time in these busy hubs.
What is the busiest airport in the United States?
The busiest airport in the United States is Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (ATL). The Atlanta airport is also the No. 1 busiest airport in the world. In 2022, 45.4 million passengers boarded commercial aircraft in Atlanta, according to the FAA. That was a nearly 24 percent increase over the 36.7 million enplanements in Atlanta in 2021.
The 20 busiest airports in the United States
1. Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (45.4 million)
Located 10 miles from downtown Atlanta, Georgia’s Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) is a massive domestic and international hub for air travel—especially for those traveling with Delta Air Lines and its partners. The 6.8 million-square-foot terminal complex consists of 152 domestic gates and 40 international gates.
This being Delta’s HQ, there’s at least one Delta Sky Club in all seven of the concourses (A, B, C, D, E, F, and T). There’s also an American Airlines Admirals Club, United Club, and the Club at ATL, available to Priority Pass holders and to those who purchase a day pass.
The Atlanta airport has an ambitious art program that includes both permanent and rotating exhibits for those with some spare time. And if you need to fuel up before your flight, there are more than 100 food and beverage establishments to choose from, including such standouts as acclaimed upscale American restaurant One Flew South in Concourse E; Shake Shack in Concourse A; the Varsity for chili dogs or the Original El Taco for innovative Mexican (fried chicken tacos, anyone?) in Concourse C; and Chicken + Beer for Southern comfort fare in Concourse D.
2. Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport (35.3 million)
Spanning 26 square miles with five terminals (A, B, C, D, and E), 171 gates, and 7 runways, Dallas–Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) could actually be considered a small city—it’s larger than Manhattan (which is 22.7 square miles) and even has its own zip code. Despite its size, the airport is on track to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2030 thanks in part to a $35 million federal grant for a zero-carbon electrical plant.
If you find yourself with extra time in this sprawling travel complex, the good news is there are some decent eateries. In Terminal A, head to Ling & Louie’s for a nice sit-down menu of creative Asian cuisine, the Salt Lick Bar-B-Que for one last barbecue fix before take off, or Twisted Root for a serious burger. In Terminal B, you can sip wine at the sophisticated Decanted and fill up on smoked meats and sides at Cousins BBQ. There’s an always reliable Shake Shack in Terminal C, the Fort Worth coffeehouse Brewed in Terminal D, and Blue Mesa Taco & Tequila Bar in Terminal E for Mexican-inspired food and drinks.
Lounges include American Airlines Flagship First lounge and Admirals Clubs, Delta Sky Club, United Club, Capital One Lounge, Centurion Lounge, and the Club at DFW for Priority Pass holders.
Some fun additional amenities are Spa Here, for massages, haircuts, and nail treatments in Terminal C; Minute Suites for napping in Terminal A; and Gameway, a video game lounge, in Terminal B. There’s also a children’s play area (courtesy of McDonald’s) in Terminal D near gate D8.
3. Denver International Airport (33.8 million)
In 2022, Denver International Airport (DEN) completed a capacity expansion project that added 39 new gates to the mountain hub (for a total of 148) and increased the terminal’s capacity by 30 percent. And that’s a good thing considering how many people travel through this major transfer hub.
Denver airport has three concourses: A, B, and C (that logically correspond with the A gates, B gates, and C gates). Following the expansion effort, the airport also received three new outdoor decks, family seating areas, nursing rooms, new bathroom facilities, charging stations, and workstations.
Besides its unmistakable architecture, the Denver hub is known for its extensive art collection—worth exploring preflight. During the holiday season from mid-November through early January, an ice skating rink and live music performances set up shop in the airport’s outdoor plaza.
Frequent travelers can escape the throngs at several clubs and lounges, including an American Airlines Admirals Club, American Express Centurion Lounge, Delta Sky Club, and a United Club and new United Club Fly concept.
Non–lounge lizards have some decent food options throughout the concourses. In Concourse A, Breckenridge Brewery pours local craft brews, Brothers BBQ serves up massive sandwiches, and Denver Central Market (near gate A48) offers a wide selection of reliable fast casual outposts. In Concourse B, head to Snooze for a serious breakfast, Elway’s for a nice sit-down meal, CRÚ Food and Wine Bar, or Shake Shack. In Concourse C, try to make some time for locally sourced cuisine and cocktails or craft brews at the colorful Root Down. You can also opt for Tamales La Casita followed by Little Man Ice Cream.
4. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport (33.1 million)
Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) is the main global hub for this bustling Midwestern city and features 193 gates spread across four terminals (Terminals 1, 2, 3, and 5—there is no Terminal 4).
When it comes to airport lounges, O’Hare is home to an American Airlines Flagship Lounge and an Admirals Club, a Delta Sky Club, and a United Club and a Polaris Lounge.
If you’re looking to work up a sweat between flights, the Hilton Athletic Club inside the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport Hotel sells day passes, which include access to a steam room, sauna, lap pool, and locker rooms. You can also head to the yoga room and urban garden in Terminal 3 or try the Terminal Getaway Spa in Terminal 1 for some preflight zen. A family lounge in Terminal 2 near gate F1 includes a play area for kids, and there are nursing rooms in all four terminals.
As for food options, there are three locations of the chef Rick Bayless–backed Tortas Frontera outposts at O’Hare (in Terminals 1, 3, and 5) where you can get the perfectly toasted tortas. Or for lighter fare, hit up Wicker Park Seafood and Sushi Bar (in Terminals 1 and 2).
5. Los Angeles International Airport (32.3 million)
LAX, as it’s commonly called (as that’s the airport code), is in the midst of a major transformation. The expansive Southern California airport recently broke ground on several major construction projects that promise to alleviate a lot of the traffic issues the airport faces. They include an electric rail system that will provide public transportation access to and from the airport and is slated for completion in 2023. And LAX has been transforming in other ways as well.
What was once a dearth of options throughout the airport has evolved into a respectable roster of dining experiences. Standouts include fast-casual seafood joint Slapfish and elevated dining at SeaLegs Wine Bar (both in Terminal 2). And you can get inventive burgers at Umami Burger and creative Mexican cuisine at Border Grill in the Tom Bradley International Terminal.
Once you’ve fueled up, be sure to check out some of the art installations throughout the airport. Every major U.S. carrier has one or more lounges at LAX, as do several international carriers, credit card companies, and airline alliance networks.
6. John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York (26.9 million)
Major changes are underway at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK), where work began this past spring on an ambitious $19 billion overhaul of the massive facility. When completed, the six existing terminals (confusingly numbered 1 through 8—terminals 3 and 6 were demolished more than a decade ago) will shrink to four, anchored by two new complexes at either end of the airport.
As part of the “A New JFK” project, terminals 2 and 7 (formerly occupied by Delta Air Lines and British Airways, respectively) will be demolished. And at the south side of JFK will be a new Terminal 1 for major tenants, including Air France and Lufthansa, that will eventually be connected to a newly expanded Terminal 4, home to Delta and dozens of foreign flag carriers. At the other end of the airfield, a new Terminal 6 (where JetBlue will be the main tenant) will rise next to JetBlue Airways’ current Terminal 5 base. At American Airlines’ Terminal 8, where British Airways recently shifted its operations from Terminal 7 (which is set to be demolished in several years), work was recently completed on new facilities like expanded lounges and five additional gates for wide-body aircraft. Got all that?
If you have time to kill while at JFK, head to one of the airport’s most impressive architectural landmarks, the Eero Saarinen–designed TWA Flight Center, which has been transformed into the TWA Hotel, a nostalgia-filled shrine to Sixties-era glamour. You can grab a proper sit-down meal at the Paris Café by Jean-Georges, with cuisine inspired by 1960s’ inflight menus curated by celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, or the more casual Food Hall with everything from bagels to tacos. Or get cocktails on a scarlet-hued banquette in the Sunken Lounge or in the vintage Lockheed Constellation (or “Connie”) propeller plane parked outside the hotel that now serves as a bar.
7. Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas (25.5 million)
Formerly McCarran International Airport, the airport that serves southern Nevada and is the gateway to Las Vegas was renamed Harry Reid International Airport (LAS) in December 2021. (It’s named after the Nevada congressman who served from 1983 until 2017.) While more than 25 million travelers arrived at the hub last year, likely headed to the Strip for its myriad hotels and resorts, casinos, nightlife and hopping foodie scene, the airport itself isn’t much to write home about. A rather underwhelming get-in-and-get-out transport hub, Harry Reid features two main terminals: Terminal 1 (T1) and Terminal 3 (T3).
If you’re flying out of Terminal 1, your best bet is to find the Shake Shack near the B gates or the Ruby’s Diner near the D gates for a preflight burger-and-fries-fueled calorie boost, or the Jose Cuervo Tequileria near the C gates for a refreshing marg, chips, and guac. If you find yourself in Terminal 3, good luck and godspeed. No matter where you find yourself, you’ll have access to some slot machines for one last chance at a jackpot—it is Vegas after all.
8. Orlando International Airport (24.5 million)
Those traveling to and from Orlando are most likely among the masses on a pilgrimage to this Florida region’s sought-after theme parks, namely the Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando. With numerous gift shops that pay homage to the parks’ popular franchises, you can easily stock up on any souvenirs you may have forgotten between roller coaster rides.
In 2022, Orlando International Airport (MCO) opened its new Terminal C, which is now home to JetBlue, Aer Lingus, British Airways, Emirates, and Lufthansa, among several other carriers. The opening of Terminal C brings with it some fun new eateries, notably Sunshine Diner by chef Art Smith, a playful spin on a classic diner with staples like all-day breakfast, burgers, patty melts, a kids menu, cocktails, wine, and beer. For a solid dose of innovative Southern fare, head to Cask & Larder for chicken and waffles or pulled pork tacos.
Another big boost for Orlando airport was the addition of the Brightline high-speed train line, which recently added service between Miami and Orlando. The new 37,350-square-foot Brightline Orlando Station is in a two-story glass atrium complex at the airport, next to Terminal C. Travelers do not need to be flying in or out of the airport to access the train station.
9. Miami International Airport (23.9 million)
Coming in just behind Orlando is another major Florida hub, Miami International Airport (MIA), which serves as a major gateway to the Caribbean, Latin America, and points beyond. Miami airport consists of a North (D gates), Central (E,F, and G gates), and South Terminal (H and J gates).
In June 2023, MIA became the first airport in Florida and only the second in the United States to be accredited by the Airports Council International’s (ACI) Accessibility Enhancement Accreditation (AEA) program. Within the past decade, Miami has launched a MIAair tour program, which lets passengers with special needs do an in-person dry run of the air travel experience; added accessibility lanes in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) areas; created 10 wheelchair-charging stations for electric wheelchairs; offers sunflower lanyards to travelers with hidden disabilities; and has multi-sensory rooms in its North and South terminals for neurodivergent travelers. It also provides access to the Aira Airport Network, a free mobile service for blind and low-vision travelers to receive navigation assistance.
Miami airport recently introduced a MIA2Go app that allows travelers to order food from any of the terminals online or via the app. If you’re looking for a Cuban food fix, there are several Café Versailles locations throughout the North and Central terminals as well as Ku-Va near gate D19. Or head to the Miami Beach cult brunch outpost Icebox for any meal of the day—they have it all, with a healthy twist.
10. Charlotte Douglas International Airport (23.1 million)
This one might surprise some travelers, but Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT) in Charlotte, North Carolina, is indeed one of the busiest airports in the United States and the world. The airport consists of one main terminal with five concourses: A, B, C, D, and E. The number of travelers passing through this Southern hub has nearly doubled over the past 20 years. Consequently, the airport is in the midst of a $4 billion overhaul to help keep up with its inflating passenger numbers.
There are two American Airlines Admiral Clubs, an American Express Centurion Lounge, the Club CLT (for which travelers can book a day pass), and a USO Lounge for all members of the military and their families. (Charlotte is a big hub for military travel.)
In keeping up with its contemporaries, there are some great options for food and passing the time, even if you’re not lounging. There are private Minute Suites for napping, working and freshening up (with showers), and two XpresSpa locations for that preflight massage or mani. Gamers can hit up the Gameway in Concourse E.
Those needing a caffeine fix should head to Commonspace, which serves Counter Culture Coffee from Durham, N.C. An outpost of Asheville’s famous Wicked Weed brewery is located at the airport (in the Plaza) and there’s the recently opened Charlotte-based brewery Sycamore. You can also load up on Bojangles biscuits, Bad Daddy’s burgers, salads and lighter fare at Chalice Cafe, and do some last-minute shopping at the 1897 Market.
The remaining busiest U.S. airports
Beyond the top 10 busiest airports in the United States listed above, here are the airports that round out the entire top 20 list.
11. Seattle–Tacoma International Airport (SEA) (22.2. million)
12. Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX) (21.9 million)
13. Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) (21.6 million)
14. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) (20.4 million)
15. Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) (19.8 million)
16. Boston’s General Edward Lawrence Logan International Airport (BOS) (17.4 million)
17. Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport (FLL) (15.4 million)
18. Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport (MSP) (15.2 million)
19. LaGuardia Airport in New York (LGA) (14.4 million)
20. Detroit Metro Wayne County Airport (DTW) (13.8 million)
Source : Afar