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On top of the world

OAG senior analyst, John Grant, takes a closer look at the traffic trends at the world’s busiest hubs over the last 20 years.

Aviation has always been a strong indicator of both economic activity and innovation, but it is only when we look back over 20 years that we really appreciate how fast moving the industry is, how much change has occurred and the pace of that change. 

In 1996, the US dominated the ‘top ten’ airports in terms of departing seats per annum, with seven of the ten listed. By 2005, the emergence of other global markets reduced that seven to only four airports with new entrants such as Beijing Capital, Bangkok Suvarnabhumi and Paris CDG appearing. 

By 2015, the US’s seven had become three as Dallas/Fort Worth fell outside of the ‘top ten’ airports for the first time.

Perhaps of greater interest is that the total capacity at the leading airport, Hartsfeld-Jackson Atlanta, only increased by 10% over the 20 years, whilst Frankfurt, which is tenth position in 2015, was a comfortable eighth in 1996. 

That growth in capacity at major airports is also reflected by the fact that 27.7 million passengers would have made the ‘top ten’ in 1996; today that would only place an airport at 24th in the world’s leading airports.

Whilst there has been some inevitable churn in the ‘top ten’ airports, through processes such as consolidation and sheer multiple hub operations in the case of the US based airlines, the ‘top ten’ carriers list is much more stable. 


Over the past 20 years, the top five airlines have always been US based reflecting the total market size, whilst below that top five perhaps the most interesting development is the inclusion of two major Chinese carriers in 2015 as well as Turkish Airlines, which in 1996 only ranked 43rd on the OAG database. 

With the world apparently shrinking in the last two decades, and more and more alternate routings available between any two city pairs, we have also taken a look back at the longest sector lengths to see how that has changed and, just as importantly, which airlines have been operating those sectors. 

At face value it would seem that whilst the longest sector length has stretched out a little further over the last 20 years, there has been no ‘breakthrough’ change in that time. 

However, in this instance that is not quite the case. In 1996 all of the ‘top ten’ routes were operated by either B747 or A340 four engine aircraft; by 2015 all of the sectors were operated by B777 two engine aircraft, reflecting the significant advances in aircraft power technology and consumption that have been achieved in that time.

In reflecting on the 20 year period since 1995, perhaps the most remarkable point is the resilience of the US market from both an airport and airline perspective, which was also seen in the recently produced OAG Megahubs Index report. 

History, however, is not always an indicator of future trends and results, so we have also looked forward to assess what the situation might be in a few years time.


Certainly from the airlines’ perspective, the consolidation of the US-based carriers has placed a considerable distance between themselves and China Southern in sixth place. 

However, in Europe, we have yet to see real consolidation among the airline community; formal structures such as IAG and the Lufthansa Airline Group provide a half-way house solution that ultimately provides opportunity for full consolidation into one brand at a particular point. 

If that was the case, then the collective IAG airline family would immediately enter the ‘top ten’ in sixth place, with the Lufthansa Airline Group similarly entering at seventh. 

From an airport perspective, many of the facilities included are either operating at capacity throughout the day or have such notable banks of activity that, in reality, only additional new runway capacity or indeed new airport facilities are likely to bring about any significant movement in position. 

Certainly the new airport in Istanbul – scheduled to open in early 2018 – along with Dubai World Central, Beijing Capital and perhaps Hong Kong appear to be best placed to move up in the rankings in the next five to ten years. 

It is, however, in the area of longest scheduled routes that we are likely to see the most dramatic change in the next decade. The arrival of the B787 and more recently the A350 are certainly serious game changers in terms of range. 

With Singapore Airlines already seeking to once again operate to the US non-stop, sector lengths of 19 hours are possible, although the commercial viability of such services and consumer response to such lengths are yet to be tested. 


Over the last twenty years the aviation scene has certainly changed; airline mergers, new airports and an industry that constantly innovates and challenges, means that no-one can be too complacent about always being ‘number one’. 

Equally, among all that change, it is often reassuring to see that airports such as Chicago O’Hare and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta and airlines like American and Delta are still there after all these years!

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