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:

Scheduled Versus
Capacity January
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).

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. That China Southern is currently the largest airline is actually logical and expected for the reasons stated in the post. China will soon surpass the US as the largest aviation market. China’s population is about four times larger than the US population and China has an exploding middle class. China’s political system and repression of dissent sucks but it is an economic juggernaut with the power to shape social and political statements of US companies (NBA, Marriott, Delta to name a few) wanting to do business there.

  2. Why wouldn’t I expect that an airline based in a country of 1 billion without a virus outbreak would have more volume than an airline based in a country of 300 million with a virus outbreak? Sounds like common sense to me…

  3. I am not amazed China Southern is number one at the moment. I am amazed AA is number 2 and how far UA has fallen. Looks like AA has the right partner in China however.

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