United Airlines Claims To Be The World’s Largest But That’s.. Not True?

Aviation watchdog JonNYC reports that United Airlines is telling its employees that they are now the world’s largest airline. They’ve sent a message from CEO Scott Kirby trumpeting this claim:

Based on published May schedules as summarized by Cirium’s Diio Mi, United Airlines does offer the most seat miles but they have fewer flights than American and Delta, and fly fewer seats than American, Delta, or Southwest. What their claim means is they fly bigger planes farther than competitors. But they aren’t flying more planes, operating more flights, or carrying more passengers than competitors.

Airline Flights Seats Seat Miles
American 166,520 21,603,745 23,255,535,441
Delta 140,565 19,627,700 23,578,573,193
United 130,598 16,999,081 25,218,551,328
Southwest 125,217 19,868,495 14,530,180,277

It’s a bit odd that, even by this stylized measure, United’s CEO only claims to have ‘just’ become the largest. United actually became largest by scheduled seat miles in August 2022.

Oddly they’re only trumpeting the claim about being the biggest based on seat miles flown, and not seat miles sold. It’s more important to focus on moving passengers where they want to go.

United Airlines claims to be the ‘flag carrier’ of the United States, because it flies to more international destinations than other carriers. Legally, though, the designation of flag carrier in the U.S. simply means that it has been granted the authority to fly to international destinations (so all of their major competitors are also flag carriers). Traditionally the term means that an airline, usually government-backed, is the representative of its country abroad. United’s planes show up more places, but that doesn’t make them biggest.

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. It’s just a case where you can make numbers say whatever you want if positioned differently.

    What’s the largest subway system in the world? Is that number of trains, number of stations, number of seats traveled, number of miles traveled, number of passengers?

    They’re maximizing their press and the surface of the company as best they can and that’s the role of the CEO. So for that I say, not bad. (and I hate United, lol)

  2. I can’t think of a more empty and meaningless self-proclamation then ‘biggest airline’. So what? The race is about quality, not size.

  3. Kirby forgot he was fired from the worlds’ largest and now at one of the world’s worst.

  4. @bob, but Air Canada’s boast of being best North American airline wasn’t self proclaimed they were awarded that. You can question the criteria for such recognition, but largely there hasn’t been much competition for “best of” when it comes to North American carriers

  5. ASMs are the industry standard measure of capacity…I would say that an airline using RPMs, flights, or pax flown as a measure of being the world’s largest is more misleading

  6. sunviking got it.
    Scott Kirby has an inferiority complex and is continually looking for a point to brag about.

    Even if he succeeds at being the largest airline by ASMs, the metric for any business is revenue, and most importantly, profits.

    The earnings season for the first quarter is now closed. United is substantially behind both Delta and then American in terms of revenue. In terms of profits, United was not profitable while American was – even though American has yet to account for the eventual labor cost increases it will have to pay once it settles with contracts with its pilots and flight attendants that are valued as much as or higher than Delta, the only one of the big 4 that has increased labor rates for all of its employees.

  7. Let’s put this in context: This is the same joker who – without any possible validation or evidence – suddenly declared his airline the best in the world. That’s like some idiot blogger (not looking at you Gary) declaring themselves one of the world’s best travel bloggers. Ignore the stupidity they spout and you’ll be better off.

  8. “There are three kinds of lies – lies, damned lies, and statistics.” – Mark Twain

  9. anyone that bothered to read the details of the latest 1st quarter earnings reports can see that UA is only larger than DL in both Latin America and Europe by less than 2%. Since UA bragged about not parking any aircraft during covid and so could jump on demand quickly, it is very likely that DL will overtake UA in both of those two regions in the not too distant future.
    Delta will put more aircraft into service this year than any other US airline including more widebodies, including most of its ex-Latam aircraft that were parked. Over the next 3 years, Delta has more than twice as many new aircraft deliveries as United according to each carriers’ latest financial disclosures.
    AA is the clear leader in domestic revenue and Latin America.
    United does lead in Pacific revenue but even that title is at risk if Delta really starts growing its transpacific operations as it has already started to do.

    So maybe we should just let UA brag about being the world’s largest airline even though they aren’t in revenue and may not even be the largest by any other metric for very long.

  10. This is another lousy article from Vftw…so UA isn’t the largest according to the author but the author doesn’t claim another is larger, or what metric should be used, instead of ASM. Available seat miles is an industry standard that measures capacity (size) of an airline. What else would you use and what airline would you consider the largest? There’s not a good answer other than ASM and United.

  11. Well. looking at the 1Q financials of UA, AA and DL shows UA has the most RPMs and ASMs.
    In millions
    UA 52,532 – 65,720
    AA 52,014 – 65,006
    DL 49,687 – 61,351

  12. Kirby said UA is the largest in terms of Available Seat Miles. He is speaking in terms of forward looking for the summer schedule. That’s all well and good, but the traditional way of “who’s the biggest airline” is by measuring Revenue Passenger Miles. We’ll see at the end of the summer if those seats were filled.

    At least before Covid, Southwest was the “largest” domestic airline when measured just by passengers boarded because the average Southwest passenger doesn’t fly nearly as far on their trip as do the average passengers on the Big Three.

    All that REALLY matters is who is the most profitable in terms of return on shareholder’s investment.

    That is the only reason the airline, or any other publicly traded corporation exists.,

    Any other measurement is just for show.

  13. Tim, UA has 700 planes on order, with approximately 100 being delivered this year, 50-60 last year, and at least 100 next year. Plus an additional 100 787s.

    It’s fine that DL will fall further behind UA in terms of size over the Atlantic and Pacific. UA’s yields are in the same range as DL, and revenue will continue to grow as these hundreds of planes are delivered.

    You said airline size doesn’t matter but then tout (incorrectly) that DL will overtake UA in certain regions. I’m confused. Why make an incorrect claim if it doesn’t even matter in the first place?

  14. Goforride, Kirby’s claim is from Q1 ASM’s as provided by each carrier in their earnings report; not just a summer projection. The gap will widen in United’s favour then as shown by the articles data points for May.

  15. First quarter results from each carrier’s reporting: (miles in millions)
    UA on top in both categories in their weakest quarter.
    A.L. RPMs ASMs
    UA 52,532 65,720
    AA 52,014 65,006
    DL 49,687 61,351

  16. Mark,
    UA has the oldest fleet including the least fuel efficient widebody fleet and the most regional jets.
    UA is not spending $35 billion more than any other airline in order to grow – as much as some people want to believe otherwise.
    DL has more new widebodies due for delivery in the next 3 years than UA and still was within 2 percent of UA over the Atlantic and to Latin American IN REVENUE on its own aircraft.
    DL has much more opportunity to develop its networks in those regions via JVs than UA does.

    UA doesn’t lead anyone in revenue.

    Being fixated with ASMs misses the point completely. Other airlines generate more revenue more efficiently than United.

    And once UA adds the debt and least costs of all of those aircraft to its balance sheet, it will look like AA did for years.

    Other airlines simply have more growth capacity from younger, more efficient fleets than UA.

    UA will not be the largest airline in the metrics that matter – revenue and profits – and likely not even in ASMs.

    Let them crow about what they want while they can.

  17. The only metric used to measure how large an airline is, is by Available Seat Miles.

  18. Tim, Just quit the nonsense and misleading use of data. I don’t get what your weird deal is about Delta’s widebody fleet being SLIGHTLY younger for maybe 2-4 years… but how many times do you have to be reminded of facts?

    United’s widebody fleet TODAY is about… 0.5 years older than Delta’s… per the 10-k and also 62 planes larger. That will grow slightly in three years but not that much when you look at Delta’s ancient and inefficient 767 fleet.

    Delta has no replacement for their 66 767 that are about ~25 years old, on average (28 years when Delta’s order book is complete), they also have not made an order to replace them. Delta waited for a Boeing mid-sized jet that never happened while United and AA did not. Delta has ZERO delivery slots lined up for these ancient birds that they use for much of their small dot Atlantic flying where the sunk cost of the 767 helps them make those routes work.
    For delta’s 11 A332, they’re more than 18 years old today.
    The 14 A333s aren’t getting younger and will be about 17 years old when Delta’s order book is done.
    Delta has ~34 more widebody orders TOTAL with no more confirmed delivery slots on very busy production lines to replace those 91 ageing aircraft. That’s it. And some of those 34 will replace the 91, sure, but certainly not all of them or anywhere close to the ageing 767 fleet.

    Again, United’s fleet is 0.5 years older than Delta widebodies right now.
    United has 102 787s confirmed for delivery. 45 A350s with delivery priority above Delta, for now since they actually have these birds on order while Delta does not. United also has 50 XLRs to replace their 757s and provide incremental long-range flying. Delta has nothing to replace the 757’s long-range for potential deep south america or even some atlantic use again. They have 321NEOs, sures but nothing to build international routes like United’s combined order book of XLR, 787, and A350. Nearly 200 planes on order for United, confirmed. They have delivery slots to replace and grow their widebody fleet and significantly grow internationally. Where exactly do you think they’re going to put the XLRs? United will have a massive advantage for years against Delta in small-dot Atlantic flying from NYC when those start arriving for United against Delta’s ancient 767s that have no replacement

    Delta will keep getting older as their VERY small remaining widebody order completes delivery in about three years. Not sure why facts seem to offend you so much. Delta just isn’t a leader in international vs United, especially when you compare JVs (Latin excepted).

    It’s stupid for Scott Kirby to claim United is the largest airline by this type of metric, but it’s even more dumb for you to claim some weird “Delta is the long-term leader” in really anything international vs United when the delta widebody order book is a comparative joke to United. Per United wanting to grow or replace with their widebody order or their narrowbody order book. United actually has the option to grow internationally with this actual order book vs Delta’s non-existent orders. You’d have to be living under a rock to think United under Scott Kirby is some kind of “let’s just replace and stay about the same size”. That’s never been him or his strategy when it comes to domestic or international and his entire order book demonstrates that.

  19. I did not say that Delta is the long term leader.
    I did say that it is mathematically possible for Delta to surpass United in Europe and Latin America and possibly even Asia by revenue – if you actually looked at the revenue, you would see they are very close in all but the Pacific.
    Delta provides aircraft delivery guidance by fleet type up until 2025, United does it through 2024. You and I and nobody outside of those two companies have no idea how fleets will be delivered.
    It is patently false to say that United has priority over Delta because there is simply no evidence of that.

    You and others argue about how much growth capacity that United has and then argue about the age of Delta’s 767 fleet while ignoring that United ALSO has a slightly smaller but similarly aged 767 fleet.
    The difference in fleet age between the two comes in the 777 vs. A330 fleets. The new generation (A330NEO and A350 vs B787 fleet age and size is very similar).

    I have never argued for or against fleet age. In fact, I have argued against AA’s bragging about its fleet age – because they spend more on fleet related spending per seat mile – maintenance and finance costs – than Delta or United – without a fuel advantage at least to Delta.

    UA touted that it didn’t retire aircraft – and they got a lead in returning aircraft. Delta has a much more fuel efficient fleet – which leads to higher profits while United has held onto less fuel efficient aircraft. Delta has more widebody deliveries in the KNOWN next few years than United. If you would like to publish aircraft deliveries by fleet type beyond what DL or UA has published in their financial statements, please do post them.

    My statements are indeed accurate

    Let United brag about statistics that most logical people see don’t really matter while ignoring revenue metrics that do matter and which DL could easily surpass in a fairly short period of time.
    And even United might not stay on top on ASMs in a couple years based on KNOWN, disclosed fleet acquisition

  20. If you look deeper you will find that UA has 71 WB aircraft with newest generation engines vs. DL of 49 and AA of 56.
    AA has the highest percentage of new engine generation engines at 45% followed by UA and 32% and DL at 31%.
    All have new WB aircraft on order, but UA’s dwarfs the others.
    DL pulled 777 aircraft, leaving them short of WB aircraft, yet still have a low percentage in new-engine technology.
    AA pulled 767 aircraft and are now short of WB aircraft.

    DL lags behind in new-engine aircraft with their NB fleet.

    UA has under half of the 757s flown by DL and most were CO units with lower cycles due to ATAL service over the years. AA pulled all 757 aircraft when the pandemic hit.
    AA currently has 42 MAXes and 71 321neos.
    UA has over 100 MAXs in service with hundreds more on order plus A321neo and XLR aircraft on order.
    DL has 26 A321neos plus 60 of the smaller A220. Without the 321XLR, DL has no chance of outpacing UA on TATL service. DL interestingly decided to buy 127 321ceo units that are an average of 4.4 years old – the neo version was launched in 2016. They will be flying these older-technology units for years.

  21. first, there is no magic age for average fleet or any particular aircraft.
    second, aircraft cost money to operate – a combination of ownership/lease costs plus fuel and maintenance and crew
    third, US airlines report the operating costs to the DOT by fleet type so I am not guessing – I am using facts.
    fourth, the “next” generation of aircraft is not necessarily less costly to operate than new generation aircraft. According to DOT data, the actual operating costs of the A330-300 at DL is comparable on a per seat basis to the DL A350 and AA/UA 789. (UA’s configurations in general are less dense than AA’s so UA has higher unit costs which they generally offset w/ higher revenue generation capability – same philosophy DL uses on its widebodies relative to UA – and there is data that says that both strategies do work depending on the market)
    fifth, when DL decided to keep large portions of the 7570-200 fleet, they removed the mid galley, raised the capacity to 199 seats and the all-in operating costs including ownership is comparable to previous generation A321s and B737MAXs. The latter have lower fuel burn but much higher ownership costs. AA and UA will both have hundreds of former generation narrowbodies that will be comparable in cost w/ DL’s 757s. A small portion of the 757 fleet are internationally configured and those are being replaced with A321NEOs for transcon use.
    sixth, as much as some people object to hearing it, the 777-200ER is the most costly widebody per seat in the US carrier fleet other than the 10 A330-200s at Delta. The 777-200ER is very fuel inefficient; the reason why Delta got rid of them is because Delta had enough A330-900s and A350s on order to replace that capacity. Delta is NO LONGER short of widebody capacity as a result of retiring the 777s; as of Dec 31, 2022, Delta had replaced unit for unit all of the widebodies it retired during the pandemic. All of its 30+ widebodies due for delivery in the next 3 years are growth capacity.
    finally, despite what Scott Kirby says, both Airbus and Boeing have not sold out all delivery positions for the next five years. No manufacturer does that. After UA placed its massive order – which was driven by ego to claim the largest 787 order – AI and Saudi Arabia both placed large orders for 787s that will be delivered WITHIN the same time that UA’s 787s are delivered. no manufacturer sells out its entire production capacity to one customer. They simply do not.
    DL is keeping the A330 line open and Airbus is expanding capacity of the A350; Boeing would move heaven and hades to give Delta decent delivery slots if DL wanted 787s.
    Delta simply does not need to worry about replacing its 767 fleet or even A330CEOs at this point. There will be plenty of competition for a DL order when DL is ready to plunk down the cash.

    AA’s execs just said that the cost of buying more widebodies to use in peak season and use suboptimally for multiple quarters does not make sense – and they are right. DL uses the 767-300ERs as flex capacity and UA will use the 777-200ERs but the incremental cost of that capacity is much higher for UA than it is for DL.

    none of which changes that UA at best is the largest airline by ASMs now but based on verifiable data, that might not last.

    btw, UA just said today that it will not be able to convert the cabins of near as many aircraft as it planned due to supply chain problems. Some of us knew that would be the case months ago.

  22. Questions Tim:
    “A small portion of the (DL) 757 fleet are internationally configured and those are being replaced with A321NEOs for transcon use”.
    Does this mean DL will fly only WB TATL? A321KLR in the future?

    “Delta has a much more fuel-efficient fleet.”
    Overall or WB only. Based on ASMs? ULR flights carry lots of fuel to get to the destination

    “Delta simply does not need to worry about replacing its 767 fleet or even A330CEOs at this point.”
    Maintenance costs, D checks, mechanical cancellations and higher fuel costs are issues with these aircraft as would be the 757 fleet.

    Besides a few routes, DL doesn’t do much ULR flying so maybe dumping the 772 were the right move for DL. The 772LR being pretty much a 77W shrink (77W-SP) may not have been the best investment and few were sold.
    UA uses 772s high payload capacity on long-haul routes with good cargo loads and the 772 non-ER for high-density domestic/HI services. The 772non-ER should be leaving when more 78X units arrive.

  23. Bunky,
    thanks for the cordial conversation.
    Delta has said they are not interested in narrowbody international flights over 8 hours – they say crew costs are prohibitive with only 170 or so passengers which is all the A321NEO can hold in a premium cabin configuration.

    Fuel efficiency is for both NB and WB. You can calculate the fuel efficiency for the entire fleet by dividing the number of ASMs generated by fuel burned in gallons from financial reports.

    Delta has looked at all of the costs of maintaining older fleets; the 767-300ERs are flex capacity which means they are heavily used during the summer and less so for 5-8 months. The cost of a new widebody cannot offset that low use for almost or more than half of the year. The 757s and 767 fleets are fully owned.

    DL’s entire 19 aircraft original Delta A350-900 does ULR flying except for DTW-AMS which is thrown in for utilization. DL’s A350-900 fleet – original Delta – flies longer flight segments of any fleet type in any US and most western airline fleets. The A330-900 is the “shorter haul” new generation aircraft. AA and UA combine that job into the single 787-9.

    I do not count the domestic 777-200s in international flying if they only do domestic flying. Because of the high density, their fuel economy per passenger is better – but they also don’t provide the same level of service as UA has on its international 777-200ERs. AA and DL got out of the domestic widebody market other than international widebodies that rotate between international flights.

    btw, AA and UA’s fleet fuel efficiency is similar and fleet fuel efficiency includes regional jets where they are used if the regional jets are operated under capacity purchase agreements. Part of DL’s domestic fuel efficiency advantage is because it operates fewer regional jets and started upgauging to larger domestic aircraft earlier than AA and UA, the latter of which is the most behind.
    and alot of regional jets are not even flying due to staffing for all US carriers that use them

  24. First of all u use rpms for being the largest . United has been the 1 carrier for more yrs since starting in 1930 its close but united wins!

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