American Isn’t The Largest Airline In The World Right Now. The Biggest Carrier Isn’t One You’d Expect.

A week ago Delta was briefly the largest airline in the world by scheduled seats. They’ve dropped back down to number three. However the largest airline in the world right now isn’t American Airlines, as they usually claim. It’s actually China Southern Airlines (which is part-owned by American, and also Qatar, though is largely a state-owned enterprise).

In many ways it’s useful to think of airlines based on their pre-pandemic size, and the routes they fly as their route network from the Before Times. However everything has changed, and is rapidly changing, in the Covid era. These are the top 10 airlines in the world based on their size (scheduled seat capacity) right now:

China Southern            2,580,529-10%
American Airlines            2,402,266-50%
Delta Air Lines            2,364,630-48%
China Eastern            2,183,012-20%
Southwest            2,166,490-43%
United Airlines            1,770,028-50%
Air China            1,854,557-12%
Ryanair            1,095,300-55%
IndiGo            1,081,152-40%
ANA               921,335-33%

Chinese domestic travel has reportedly recovered to pre-pandemic levels though at much lower average fares. That explains not just China Southern but also the strong showing here of China Eastern (part-owned by Delta) and Air China (Star Alliance memebr).

China Southern was China’s largest airline going into the crisis, so it’s not surprising it’s the largest Chinese airline now – and with China’s domestic market farther ahead of others, also only moderately surprising to see China Southern as the largest airline in the world. (A year ago it was the sixth-largest.) Maybe American’s writing off a quarter of its investment in China Southern was premature!

In the United States, Southwest was the largest domestic airline so with mostly domestic travel operating it completely predictable that they’re operating more seats now than Untied Airlines which is much more heavily exposed to international (and Southwest’s schedule has recovered more aggressively, not as heavily concentrated in the Northeast).


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