Is Delta Now the World’s Largest Airline?

When Delta and Northwest merged, the combined Delta became the largest airline leapfrogging United and American. Then United and Continental merged and took over the number one spot. And of course American and US Airways merged, to become the biggest single airline.

Except that Delta continued to grow organically, and surpassed United.

During part of 2016 Delta generated more revenue than American. Delta’s market cap has been larger than American’s and it’s a more profitable company.

Looking over 3rd quarter 2017 numbers though is striking.

American promises not to grow the total number of planes in its fleet. It will grow by swapping smaller planes for larger ones, and adding seats to existing planes. Their goal isn’t to grow as much as it is to squeeze more revenue from existing passengers.

Delta’s transatlantic results were strong in the third quarter, and their performance wasn’t dragged down as much by hurricanes as United (Houston) and American (Miami). Not reflected in the airline’s passenger results, their strategy seems to be to recognize a limit to growth in the U.S. market while experimenting aggressively with new routes such as the subsidized Indianapolis – Paris.

More than that though Delta’s business growth will seem to come internationally via investments in airlines like Virgin Atlantic, Gol, Aeromexico, and China Eastern. They’re betting on Latin America
and China, and they bought access to London Heathrow. Whether or not the strategy ultimately proves successful, it is a strategy. So if you’re betting on American or Delta to be the largest airline going forward it’s hard not to bet on Delta.

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. The number of flights or number of aircraft seems more important than number of passengers and certainly ahead of total revenue when bestowing the title of world’s largest airline. Given the relative management capabilities, it is certain that delta will soon be larger than American and American clone, United.

  2. Well there’s going to be a limit to how many aircraft you can fly the skies on perceived profitable routes, so I guess Delta’s strategy is working out for them and their shareholders.

    The poor SkyMiles members, though…

  3. Of the three largest “legacy” airlines, American, Delta & United, for sure Delta can take pride in being the best of the worst!

    They are – by far – if only because American is flat out dreadful, while United says it wants to be much better than it is, yet hired two executives from two different airlines, both with even worse service than United (American’s Scott Kirby, whose “Real Housewives” tagline would likely be “Making Flying As Horrible As Possible For Passengers At Every Opportunity I Can”, or Allegiant, an airline better known for its long list of abnormally high published safety related incidents better resembling the bad old days of ValuJet, than anything else [did I forget to note that one of the principal’s at Allegiant, Maurice Gallagher, was also one of the principal’s of ValuJet, too?]).

    So, with two of its “peers” locked in a battle to see which airline can be worse, and get away with it (see, for example, American’s attempt to reduce coach row pitch on its 737-8 Max’s to 29” and its “No OverheAAd Bins For You” Basic Economy Fares that United copied) it’s not very hard for Delta to outshine the other horrible two airlines and therefore leapfrog both of them “organically” to become the world’s largest airline when it really doesn’t require much to accomplish that!

    And while American and United wrestle each other to see who can be worse, most of the flyers seeking to escape those two truly awful airlines by “choosing” the one that’s the “least” hostile and punitive towards them by throwing them a few more “fun sized” bones like free booze in their extra space coach/economy rows as Delta does, or by playing “nicer” towards those poor souls willing to pay money to still be treated like the airline industry’s “doormats” in Basic Economy and actually allowing these passengers the (false/illusory?) hope for an opportunity to find space in the overhead bin after boarding dead last, find themselves paying a separate tax for the “privilege” of flying a “better” airline:

    A virtually worthless frequent flyer program that for most that even had the gall – or as we say in NYC, Chutzpah – to recently up the price of admission for top elite status on its Amex SkyMiles card to $250k per year from $25k!

    Well…at least they’re spreading the pain around “more equitably” (!) than American and United who really can’t afford to further alienate their road warriors any more than they already have with further cuts to their already paltry inflight “service” (if one can even still call it that) and the many other product degradations than these two awful airlines have in the past five years.

    So, yes, Delta is “better” that its rivals, and its continued ascension to the title of World’s Largest Airline reflects that, depending on which of the many metrics commonly used within the industry to crown the “winner” of who’s bigger than whom (revenues, total passengers carried, available seat miles, number of aircraft in the fleet, number of employees, destinations served, etc.).

    In our home, standing instructions from my partner, who’s company in the past year has offered him greater discretion in making his travel arrangements (he flies far more often than I do, often on transcons [Delta only, please], plus Europe and Asia from time to time) largely due to my handiwork on his behalf which included successfully getting him to Berlin in time to join them for important meetings at a reasonable fare NOT several thousands high at the last minute, and several other flights that were really nice finds, it’s Delta – or I’m in the doghouse – instead of United that his boss always booked him on in years past.

    Even for our personal trips, unless it’s Southwest, which after his first flight with them last year (and the many “stank eyes” I endured between booking his first flight on Southwest and the flight itself), if it’s not Delta, I have some explaining to do (for example, need to keep MileagePlus account active, or those times when I find something on United that’s “too good to refuse” that allows me to play the Newark card since that airport is by far the easiest airport for us to get to from Manhattan).

    Yes, Delta is better…but with American and United as its rivals, that’s really not saying much.

    Compared to the world’s better and best airlines, Delta still lags – and prefers to play the protectionist/Nationalist card in some instances instead of upping its own game.

    And we certainly haven’t seen Delta on any top ten list for service and excellence other than those affecting Wall Street, which certainly has little or no regard for the needs of passengers other than raping them and suggesting further “enhancements”…to margins and revenues, that is, that only means further product degradations to passengers be it even smaller seats, even narrower rows, even tinier (not to mention fewer) microbathrooms, more fees, higher fees, more punishments and penalties, or of course, annual mileage devaluations.

  4. As hard to swallow as Delta’s Sky miles program and continued devaluing included Medallion benefits at times; they’ve also corned the market on customer service which has a subtle but long tail halo.

  5. Howard Miller. – pretentious Queen why don’t you move to another country so you can start bitching about everything else in that country nothing but negativity from you we don’t need people like you around

  6. Howard Miller You are certainly One Miserable Pretensious Bastard that I am sure American or Delta would want on their Aircraft. Personally, If I had to endure a flight sitting next to a Bitchy Wueen like You….. you could be Adsured Your Face May get Rearranged. what a Bitch

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