Southwest Is Now The World’s Largest Airline (United Isn’t Even In The Top 10)

Last year at this time the four largest airlines in the world based on capacity were all in the U.S. American Airlines was the world’s largest airline, Delta second, followed by Southwest and then United.

The aviation industry has been among the hardest hit by COVID-19. Passengers aren’t flying. Many borders are closed, countries have grounded business travelers, and the economy is in recession. So airlines are flying a lot less than they were before the pandemic.

That’s shaken up which airlines offer the most travel capacity in the world. From OAG data, here’s capacity right now compared to where it was at the beginning of the year. (HT: David Koenig)

Rank Airline Jan. 2020 Airline Jun 15, 2020
1 American        4,806,847 Southwest      2,401,224
2 Delta        4,532,316 China Southern      2,120,702
3 Southwest        3,788,421 China Eastern      1,891,216
4 United        3,537,983 American      1,667,930
5 China Southern        2,877,703 Air China      1,285,518
6 China Eastern        2,715,809 Delta      1,095,798
7 Ryanair        2,439,612 ANA      1,035,196
8 Air China        1,881,825 Wizz Air         822,721
9 LATAM        1,870,132 Xiamen         767,849
10 IndiGO        1,813,944 Qatar         714,643

United has been among the most aggressive in cutting flights to save on cost since the early stages of the pandemic. American Airlines will grow more next month, as it plans to operate at 55% of last year domestically (just 40% overall though, with international travel lagging).

Southwest Airlines is still struggling, along with everyone else. However it doesn’t have a premium cabin product to sell, doesn’t fly nearly as much internationally, and outside of Chicago Midway its major hubs haven’t been hit as hard so far by the coronavirus as the Northeast. They also appear to have a strategy of flying more than competitors, to capture an outsized share of a smaller passenger pie.

Meanwhile China’s airlines have brought more of their capacity back than other airlines around the world and that pushes some of their already large players up in the rankings. Three Chinese airlines are now among the five largest in the world. (This will not last.)

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 InsideFlyer.com, 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. Could be working. I flew Southwest last month for the first time in years (Delta Plat).
    They had the non-stop, it was cheap, and off I went.

    I sure didn’t like the experience, but, they got my money.
    I won’t go out of my way to fly them again – but, if they are the only carrier on a route, or they offer a decent n/s… I think people like myself might check them out more than normal.

  2. The dominance of Chinese and other foreign airlines will not only last, they will increase dramatically within the next few years as the United States collapses under the weight of pandemic mismanagement, race riots, and brain drain. Domestic travel as well as inbound international travel will dry up as cities are burned to the ground by rioters. There will be no business to do, no tourism or recreation to have. The violent underclass and their mob justice will rule the country much as they currently do on twitter.

  3. Airline measure is not seat (capacity)…..it’s ASM (available seat miles ) and RPM (revenue passenger MIles)……..number of seats would be misleading since you could have a short haul airline flying 30 minute turns and have high seat turnovers…..thats why ASM is a better measure for airlines.

  4. I work for Southwest airlines and I think WE are doing a great job under the circumstances. We will get even better as time goes on.For those who are bad mouthing us, that’s fine just remember we will be here when you decide to come back. Have a SWAsome day.

  5. The China airlines are facades, as most of the Chinese data, skewed ridiculously for appearances only. They fly empy planes just to make a show, as they do in constructing empty buildings, studios, and projects. Such is the plight of a nation with a leadership that answers to no market forces or discernng voters.

  6. For you travelers that don’t like SWA…go back to your chosen airline and leave SWA for the travelers that luv it. We’ll gladly enjoy the great service and employees. As an A -list and companion pass holder, luv luv luv SWA… Happy traveling

  7. Dawn, I couldn’t agree more. I have flown Southwest 4 times in the past two months to visit an ill parent. Yes, the service as far as drinks have been cut back (so what). You guys have been great! My flight home to Chicago had a one-stop in Vegas where we stayed on the plane. The cleaning crew came through and wiped down every single empty seat, which was most. It’s great for me not having someone squeezed next to me (the open middle seat) but I understand not great for the airline. At any rate, the flight attendants and gate agents and everyone I’ve encountered has been wonderful. I always fly Southwest first and will always continue to do so.

  8. After being EP with American for years, got tired of dragged out boarding, unhappy FEs and delayed/cancelled flights. Moved everything to WN and would never go back. Every seat every day available for rewards. Crews are happy. Only one flight cancelled in the last 4 years when a lightning strike took out DEN for all airlines. No change fees – and I change every week. Took Alaska Air last week 1st class and the free boxed food was nice. But that was it. SWA simply works and works well.

  9. Just flew Southwest Airlines to greet my 6th Grandchild into this Crazy World. Flight and Crew couldn’t have been nicer! Social Distancing on the Seating of passengers Is Great! Thank you Southwest for all your hard work! As for the other Snobs that prefer their “Special Handling” for all their Frequent Flyers’ Mileage, Get Over yourselves and Deal With It! Your Pampered days are over!

  10. Have been a frequent business traveler since ‘ 92 and have held gold/platinum/commander, etc. with multiple airlines. Switched to SWA approximately 2000 and have never looked back. Don’t really care about the ‘first class service’ any more – those planes have been cattle cars for years and for those of us that remember “the good old days” – with sterling silver silverware and real China – well que sera, sera.
    I will continue to support SWA – as will my children and grandchildren. Still the best overall airline out there. Thank you all the teams – from pilots, flight attendants, ticket counter, baggage and customer service. You all get a GOLD STAR from me.

  11. Qatar Airways has kept more international routes active than any other airline in a time when other airlines (especially US ones) are only concerned about their short term bottom line. Except for their shockingly poor food options they have an excellent soft and hard product. Watch as they maintain their new market share.

  12. Was never a fan of SW because the boarding fight seems crazy to me. But I respect they have found a way to gain so many fans who don’t care about FC or fighting for seats.

  13. People who are confused by Jason must not be familiar with languages with gendered nouns. “Jason” is just the masculine form of “Karen.”

    The non-gendered plural form is: “Republicans.”

  14. This is an honest comment, and not made up. I have flown Air China a few times.The first time that I flew with them in 2010 was a different experience as an American because we walked to the airplane (737) on the tarmac surrounded by guards armed with machine guns. The 737 actually had duct tape on the wings. As we were climbing the stairs to board, we were greeted by the airplane overhead music of “Jingle Bells” – in July. My friends and I could not resist laughing at that point.

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