Heathrow remains the world’s biggest international airport and extended its lead over rivals last year despite a fall in passenger traffic.
The UK’s leading airport suffered a 1.1% drop in international passengers in 2009 against a 1.8% fall worldwide and 5.4% drop across Europe year on year.
The figures from world airports body Airports Council International (ACI) will strengthen the arguments of opponents of Heathrow expansion and appear to confirm the policy of the UK government, which has ruled out a third runway.
However, Heathrow is poised to lose its ranking as the world’s second-biggest airport overall to Beijing.
The west London hub handled 66 million passengers last year, behind US giant Atlanta on 88 million and just ahead of Beijing on 65 million – yet Beijing saw passenger growth of 16.9%, something Heathrow cannot match.
Heathrow tops the rankings for international traffic because of its huge volume of international transit passengers and lower proportion of domestic traffic, handling 60.6 million international passengers last year.
Neither Atlanta nor Beijing feature in the top-ten list of international airports.
Paris Charles de Gaulle was in second place for international passengers with 53 million and Hong Kong third with 45 million. Paris saw 5% fewer passengers than in 2008 and Hong Kong 4.6% fewer.
Heathrow’s other leading rivals as international hubs also saw sharper falls in traffic. Frankfurt handled 44.5 million, down 4.7%, and Amsterdam Schiphol 43.5 million – down 8.1%.
Madrid Barajas, which will become a base for British Airways when the carrier merges with Iberia in December, handled 29 million.
Only Dubai of the biggest international airports saw growth last year – handling 40 million passengers, a rise of 9.6% on 2008.
Beijing’s expansion was supported by explosive growth elsewhere in China, with the country having 17 of the 25 fastest-growing airports in the world.
However, the sharpest increase in traffic was at Istanbul which saw a 52% rise in passenger numbers to 6.6 million.