Biggest airport in the world: who takes the crown

If you are a frequent flier, you are probably familiar with the long airport walks from the security checkpoint to the gate or taking internal transportation to transfer between two terminals. Think about Charles de Gaulle in Paris, London Heathrow, Denver International Airport... Some airports are so gigantic that they can be their own mini village and are impressive not only with their size but also with all their facilities. 

That being said, have you ever wondered which the biggest airport on Earth is? The answer to this question is unequivocal: the King Fahd International Airport (DMM) in Dammam, Saudi Arabia tops the ranking by an overwhelming margin. The Saudi airport was even listed in the Guinness Book of World Records.

We have to note that it seems King Fahd gets its title on a technicality. The whole complex of the airport covers an impressive 776 square kilometers (300 square miles). The property’s land area exceeds that of the whole neighboring country of Bahrain! 

However, the official website of the airport reports that the actual utilized area is 36.75 km2 (14.19 sq. miles).  The airport building’s area is just 327 thousand m2 (3.520 thousand sq ft) and doesn’t qualify as large itself as well. 

Either way, King Fahd still takes the first place in official rankings and Denver International Airport which is in second position is far behind with its 135.7 km2.

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The giant airport in Dammam was named after former Saudi Arabia king Fahd bin Abdulaziz Al Saud because it was planned and built under his reign. He was the son of the infamous King Abdulaziz, considered the founder of modern Saudi Arabia. King Fahd became Crown Prince in 1975 and ascended the throne in 1982. He served as king of the Arabic country until his death in 2005.

King Fahd International Airport was designed by the “Yamasaki & Associates” architecture firm and “Boeing'' in 1977 but construction only began in 1983. By 1990 there was a basic infrastructure ready to be used and the U.S. air forces took advantage of it during the Gulf War. 

The military forces required a lot of space for storage and maintenance facilities for aircrafts (like A-10 Thunderbolt IIs). This led to the massive expansion of the airport’s area and ultimately to it becoming the biggest in the world. Later in the course of the war the U.S. military air forces relocated to Ahmad al-Jaber Air base in Kuwait but King Fahd was left to bask in its former glory.

The airport was inaugurated by the Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation and was open for commercial traffic in November 1999. The Dhahran International Airport, King Fahd’s predecessor, turned over all its operations to the newly opened giant. In fact, Dhahran was transformed into the King Abdulaziz Air Base and is only used for military purposes now. 

Location and operations

King Fahd International Airport is set in the middle of the desert, 20 kilometers (12 miles) northwest of Dammam. The city is the capital of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, and as such plays an important role for the economic, social, and cultural development of the region. 

Apart from Dammam, King Fahd is also an important airport serving the cities of Ras Tanura, Qatif, Khobar, and Dhahran (where the previous airport was). Of course, being the largest airport in the world, it is a big international gateway to and from Saudi Arabia as well. 

Saudia Airlines, Aramco Aviation, SaudiGulf Airlines, and Flynas use DMM Airport as their hub.

Transport to King Fahd International Airport

There are three transportation options from and to the airport:

  • Bus: The airport is connected to the center of Dammam by several bus lines, all operated by SAPTCO, the national transport operator. The buses run every hour and the ride takes approximately 50 minutes. 
  • Taxi:  Passengers who arrive at Dammam airport can take advantage of the cab services there. The taxi ride to the city center lasts about 35 minutes. 
  • Rent a car: The standard option for renting a vehicle at the airport is offered at King Fahd airport. There is a wide variety of companies which offer this service, among which Hertz, Sixt, Avis, Car 4 Hire, and many others.

Terminals and facilities

King Fahd International Airport has three terminals:

  • the main terminal for all international flights; 
  • the Aramco terminal for domestic flights operated by the Saudi Arabia national air carrier only; 
  • the Royal terminal that serves the Saudi Royal Family exclusively, and some government officials and other VIP guests. 

As an additional convenience for the passengers traveling from Dammam airport, there are City terminals in downtown Dammam. Travelers can check-in and receive their boarding passes there, and drop off their luggage up to 24 hours prior to their flight. 

The airport also has a mosque on the roof of the car park and its own plant nursery with three greenhouses.

The most popular destinations from King Fahd International Airport 

The most frequently operated flight route from King Fahd International Airport is between Dammam and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. There are 70 flights per week connecting the two cities. The second most popular destination is Cairo, the Egyptian capital, with 34 weekly flights.

Abu Dhabi in the UAE and Bahrain share the third position in this ranking, with 28 flights each. Interestingly enough, the route between Dammam and Bahrain is one of the world’s shortest international flights. The distance between King Fahd and Bahrain International in Manama is 76 km (47 miles) and the total duration of the journey from gate to gate takes just 45 minutes! 

The next most frequent flights are the ones to Delhi in India (21 flights per week), Sharjah in UAE (18 flights), Muscat in Oman (16 times a week), Mumbai in India and Istanbul in Turkey (both 14 times per week).

Big airport does not necessarily mean busy airport

There is a certain overlap between the definitions for “biggest” and “busiest” airport. So while King Fahd is certainly the largest in the world, it is not that busy. It handled 10.4 million passengers in 2018 and the airport would like to double this figure in the years to come.

In comparison, the busiest world airport in 2020 (when COVID hit and air transport suffered a big decline), Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport (CAN) in China, served almost 44 million passengers. The first position for business in 2021 goes to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) in the United States. The Atlanta airport is a leader in both passenger traffic (close to 76 million passengers) and aircraft movements (707.6 thousand).

Biggest airport in the world … but not for long

While King Fahd International Airport still holds the crown for largest in the world and will most likely keep it for a long time, its actual utilized surface area is not that big. On the other hand, there is a new contestant on the way to becoming the largest airport by land area that is actually in usage. 

Dubai Al Maktoum (DWC) is one of the busiest world airports based on passenger traffic and there is a grand plan set in motion for turning it into the biggest airport complex in the world. The project aims to expand the existing airport facilities to 280 km2. The original deadline was 2027 but due to the financial and global health crises in the recent decade, there will most likely be a delay. 

The plans for the massive aerotropolis include for it to handle:

  • 12 million tonnes of freight per year;
  • between 160 and 260 million passengers annually;
  • 5 parallel runways, each 4.5 km long, which will allow up to four simultaneous landings. 

The existing Dubai International Airport (DXB) will not be replaced by the new giant. On the contrary, they will complement each other and if everything goes by plan, will be connected by a high-speed railway. 

The top 10 for largest airports in the world goes on as follows:

  1. Denver International Airport (DEN)

  2. Istanbul International Airport (IST)

  3. Dallas / Fort Worth International Airport (DFW)

  4. Orlando International Airport (MCO)

  5. Washington - Dulles International Airport (IAD)

  6. Beijing Daxing International Airport (PKX)

  7. George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH)

  8. Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG)

  9. Cairo International Airport (CAI) 

As you may have noticed, a major part of this list consists of airports in North America. If you'd like to learn more about these aviation giants, check out our blog post on the biggest airports in the world.

Safe travels!