Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

What is it like to land a plane at the world's busiest airport?

January 17, 2014 -- Updated 0128 GMT (0928 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the world's busiest airport
  • More than 95 million passengers passed through the Atlanta airport in 2012
  • It handled 930,000 flight movements in the same year

(CNN) -- The world's busiest airport is not in New York or London, but Atlanta. Whatever way it is measured -- passenger traffic or airplane movements -- Atlanta's international airport tops the ranking.

More than 95 million passengers passed through Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in 2012, according to Airports Council International's latest report that was released last year. The airport also boasts the highest number of takeoffs and landings, with 930,000 flight movements in 2012.

With such sheer volume, navigating an aircraft there can be a great challenge. Tom Staigle, chief pilot of Delta, whose main main hub is at Atlanta, compares the airport to "a congested freeway."

"We have on a clear day, 120 airplanes per hour flying in and out of here, so you have to be on your toes," Staigle says.

Landing at the world's busiest airport
Keeping Delta's fleet fit for flight
Delta's home at Atlanta International Airport
Tales from the air traffic control tower

Atlanta has five runways that are kept busy with aircraft's comings and goings. Pilots need to pay attention even when they are on the ground.

"You have to be careful to ensure you're on the correct taxiway and you don't end up on a runway," says Delta pilot Stuart Kenny, "or do something else and taxi to the wrong place as you're getting ready for takeoff."

MORE: A day in the life of the world's busiest airport

To give an idea how daunting it is to fly from and into Atlanta, Kenney takes CNN Business Traveller to a flight simulator.

As a plane approaches Atlanta, a pilot would see the airport's multiple runways, a field of aircraft and a multitude of activities.

You have to be on your toes
Tom Staigle

"You'd see aircraft in front of you, see aircraft over here on the north complex," says Kenny, "see aircraft taking off at the far end, and you'd see guys turning onto the south runways."

That's why those in the cockpit need to work closely with those in the airport control tower.

"Air traffic control and the pilots are working together," says Kenney, "so you have to monitor all these targets and make sure nobody incurs into your air space and causes a problem."

As the result, "the radio traffic is daunting, says Kenney. "The radio calls are constant, so you have to listen carefully."

MORE: Where are the world's busiest airports?

And it is not just about managing landings and takeoffs. "Think about the bags, and transferring passengers from all over the world," Staigle says. "Not only do they get where they need to be on time most of the time, but their bags come with them, and it's a pleasant experience."

The world's busiest airport is not among the world's best, however. Of the 100 airports listed in Skytrax's 2013 World Airport Awards ranking, Atlanta's is at No. 48, though it's also named one of the most improved airports.

For many pilots, their first landing in Atlanta is likely to be an unforgettable experience. "It was really busy. I was a young co-pilot, and I was probably sweating a gallon of water," Kenney recalls.

As soon as they landed, he had to go through the after-landing checklist and talked on the radio. "There's no time to savor the experience," says Kenney.

It is the world's busiest airport, after all.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 17, 2014 -- Updated 0339 GMT (1139 HKT)
Few airline routes are as cutthroat as the one between London and New York.
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 1515 GMT (2315 HKT)
If it ain't broke, don't fix it, the old adage goes; Airbus unveils revamped A330 airliner.
July 8, 2014 -- Updated 0248 GMT (1048 HKT)
Show us how you travel with twitpics and instagram via #howipack
July 7, 2014 -- Updated 0923 GMT (1723 HKT)
Could airlines drop fossil fuel in favor of cooking oil?
July 1, 2014 -- Updated 0940 GMT (1740 HKT)
How do you kill time during flight delays?
June 24, 2014 -- Updated 0800 GMT (1600 HKT)
Fancy stripping off before a flight and getting sweaty with fellow passengers? Head to Helsinki.
June 19, 2014 -- Updated 0255 GMT (1055 HKT)
The skies are under threat. Not from terrorists or hardened criminals, but from everyday passengers who seem to go a little loco.
June 18, 2014 -- Updated 0334 GMT (1134 HKT)
A German entrepreneur claims to have found a way to buy 1 million air miles for as little as $6,500.
June 12, 2014 -- Updated 0213 GMT (1013 HKT)
These days, no fashion house portfolio is complete without a hotel -- or at the very least, a luxuriously designed suite.
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 1039 GMT (1839 HKT)
Is sky the limit for green aviation? Take our quiz and find out.
May 26, 2014 -- Updated 0319 GMT (1119 HKT)
Some collect spoons from their travel, others collect a whole lot more.
May 7, 2014 -- Updated 1507 GMT (2307 HKT)
There is no shortage of adjectives one can apply to airline seats; no wonder that many carriers are looking to make a change.
May 5, 2014 -- Updated 0558 GMT (1358 HKT)
Etihad Airways has unveiled new cabins that are more like suites complete with butler and chef.
ADVERTISEMENT