Reagan National 75th birthday

An historical photo shows National Airport in its pre-jet days. (Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority)

[Sun Gazette Newspapers provides content to, but otherwise is unaffiliated with, InsideNoVa or Rappahannock Media LLC.]

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in 2019 was the 26th busiest airport in the nation and the 117th busiest worldwide, reporting a pre-COVID-era count of 24.8 million passengers.

The world has changed: In 1961, the airport (then plain old “National”) recorded just 4.7 million traveling through its terminals, but that was enough to rank sixth highest in the Western world.

The Website recently posted an article highlighting the 10 busiest airports in the (non-communist) world in 1961, comparing the rankings, and passenger counts, to 2019.

(While the ranking notes that the early 1960s largely marked the start of the modern, passenger-jet era of aviation, the new jets were banned at National Airport until 1966 in an effort to convince airlines to use Dulles International Airport, which opened in 1962.)

Topping the worldwide list in 1961 was New York International Airport, colloquially known as Idlewild and later renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport.

It carried 10.2 million passengers that year; in 2019, that total had risen to 62.6 million, only good enough for 20th busiest in the world.

In 1961, Atlanta Municipal Airport accommodated 3.8 million travelers, ranking eighth worldwide. In 2019, what is now known as Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport recorded a passenger count of 110.5 million to mark its 22nd year as the world’s busiest. (Beijing Capital International Airport, at just over 100 million travelers, ranked second.)

In 1961, nine of the 10 busiest airports were in the U.S.; the lone exception was London Airport (now Heathrow). By 2019, that number had dwindled to four of the top 10.

(See the full 1961 ranking at

All airports have been hit significantly by passenger downturns since the arrival of the COVID pandemic, Reagan National more so than most. For the second half of 2020, the airport’s passenger totals have been off approximately 80 percent from comparable 2019 figures, a greater hit than those taken by Dulles or Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall airports.

The federal Bureau of Transportation Statistics in mid-March will be out with its December 2020 passenger counts at U.S. airports, based on domestic travel. Full-year figures counting domestic and international travel are expected to be released mid-year.

– Scott McCaffrey

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