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The world's busiest airports

March 29, 2007 08:49 IST

It was once observed that the economic health of New York could be accurately traced by the number of restaurant table napkins being laundered. Airport activity is an equally precise economic indicator. By this measure, Asia is doing just great, the U.S. seems busy but growing slowly, and Europe is steady but not dramatic.

The public has a somewhat jaded view of most airports, probably because so many millions of people have suffered through visits. Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport claims the title of having the most traffic, with more than 84 million visitors in 2006--somewhat larger than the entire population of Germany.

The airport with the largest tonnage of cargo in the world is Memphis, which includes a Fed Ex hub. It processes 3.5 million tons a year--the equivalent in weight of 75 Titanics.

In the U.S., the fastest-growing passenger airports are Denver and Newark, N.J., (of all places). Anchorage, Alaska, is growing fastest among U.S. cargo airports and is keeping pace with Asia, where it gets most of its business. Only three airports make the list of busiest in both passenger traffic and cargo traffic: Charles De Gaulle in Paris, Frankfort-am-Main in Germany and Los Angeles (LAX).

The 2006 World Airport Award, given out by the monitoring organization Skytrax, honored Singapore's Changi Airport as the best in the world. Their list of top 10 did not include any U.S. airports. Wong Woong Liong, the director-general of Singapore civil aviation, said upon receiving the award, "Changi Airport's constant upgrading in facilities and improvement in services, such as the complete renovation of our Terminal 2 and the launch of a dedicated Budget Terminal earlier this year, has been awarded with this strong approval from Skytrax global users."

Hong Kong and Munich, Germany, received the No. 2 and No. 3 position awards for 2006. Copenhagen Airport was given an award for the best on-site food.

Not everyone is happy with their airline experience, regardless of the airport. The recent debacle involving JetBlue that left thousands stranded for days has brought on a storm of protest.

JetBlue and AMR Corp.'s American (the world's largest carrier) have developed versions of a passenger's bill of rights--but theirs are purely voluntary. On the legislative side, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Rep. Mike Thompson, D-Calif., are proposing a passenger's bill of rights that is government designed and regulated.

This would surely involve more costs to the airlines, which could be passed on to passengers in the form of higher fares. Above all, lawmakers want to assure passengers that they'll have access to advanced notification of delays, prompt return to gates when there is a delay, provisions while there is a delay and some form of compensation.

"I have serious concerns about airlines' contingency planning that allows passengers to sit on the tarmac for hours on end. It is imperative that airlines do everything possible to ensure that situations like these (JetBlue and American) do not occur again," says Mary Peters the U.S. Secretary of Transportation. She has asked the Inspector General of DOT to investigate.

It might well be that major airlines, particularly American, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines, UAL's United, Japan, Northwest, Deutsche Lufthansa, Air Nippon, US Airways Group and Continental Airlines, are the right parties to decide upon a passengers rights with some input from passengers, consultants and the Department of Transportation.

Robert Malone, Forbes