Between the growth of airline travel and a long history of airline mergers, it should come as no surprise that the airline industry’s top players are quite large. But which airlines are the world’s largest?
Most of the top names are unlikely to surprise frequent travelers, but, since the primary markets and business models of airlines vary dramatically, the rankings are dependent on which metrics are used. We’ll take a look at a few of those different metrics to see how the world’s largest airlines stack up against the competition.
Revenue Passenger-Kilometers (RPKs)
One of the most widely-used measures of airline size in the industry — published each year by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) — is revenue passenger-kilometers (RPKs.) As the name suggests, this metric is the sum of the distances flown by each of the airline’s paying passengers over the course of the year.
IATA hasn’t published its final data for 2018 yet, but, without further ado, here are the airlines who flew the most passengers the farthest distances in 2017:
1. American Airlines (324 billion RPKs)
Given its global network and its leading position in the massive US air travel market following its merger with US Airways, it likely won’t come as a surprise to many that American Airlines carried the most paying passengers over the farthest distance of any airline in the world.
2. Delta Air Lines (316 billion RPKs)
Having first edged out United in 2015, Delta was again the second-largest airline in the world by passenger-kilometers in 2017 with 2.7% growth over 2016.
3. United Airlines (311 billion RPKs)
Rounding out the US Big Three, United Airlines once again took the number three slot of world’s largest airlines by RPKs in 2017. However, US Bureau of Transportation Statistics data for 2018 — which is released well in advance of the worldwide data from IATA — shows that United will bump Delta back out of the number two slot once the 2018 list is released.
4. Emirates (289 billion RPKs)
With its all-wide-body fleet and extensive worldwide network consisting largely of long-haul flights from its hub in Dubai, Emirates flew the fourth-most passenger-kilometers of any airline in the world in 2017 — and the most of any airline based outside of the United States.
5. Southwest Airlines (208 billion RPKs)
Southwest makes up for what it lacks in distance in pure volume. Despite operating only Boeing 737 aircraft on short-haul and medium-haul routes, Southwest still managed to rank behind only the US Big Three and Emirates in passenger-kilometers flown in 2017.
However, while Southwest has been expanding its network with some exciting new routes, its 2019 numbers will likely end up being hurt by the grounding of its 737 MAX fleet and its ongoing dispute with some of its mechanics, which have resulted in flight cancellations for much of the year.
6. China Southern (177 billion RPKs)
It’s no secret that China’s air travel market is growing rapidly. While citizens of the United States accounted for 18.6% of all airline passengers worldwide in 2017, China ranked a close second at 16.3%. It’s no surprise then that China Southern’s aggressive expansion brought it to the number six slot in 2017 — and will likely take it higher in the years to come, even despite its recent departure from the SkyTeam alliance.
7. Ryanair (157 billion RPKs)
Ryanair isn’t known for having the most comfortable cabins. Neither is it known for the sobriety of its passengers. It is, however, known for ferrying a very large number of passengers around Europe at low prices. Like Southwest, Ryanair operates only Boeing 737 aircraft on short-haul and medium-haul routes, but makes up for the short distance of its flights in passenger volume.
8. Lufthansa (152 billion RPKs)
The only European full-service airline to make the top ten, Lufthansa flew 152 billion RPKs in 2017.
Note that the IATA figures are for individual air carriers, so only Lufthansa flights are included here, not the flights of other Lufthansa Group members, such as Austrian, Swiss or Brussels.
9. China Eastern Airlines (151 billion RPKs)
The second-largest airline in the rapidly-growing Chinese market, China Eastern fell slightly short of passing Lufthansa in 2017, flying 151 billion RPKs. China Eastern will soon have even more capacity for growth, as they move in to the new Beijing Daxing International Airport later this year.
10. Air China (147 billion RPKs)
China’s third-largest carrier rounds out IATA’s 2017 list, taking the 10th place position as British Airways fell from its place on the 2016 list.
Another common measure of the size of an airline is the number of aircraft it operates. Airport Spotting created a list of the world’s top 10 largest airline fleets as of the end of 2017. While many of the same carriers appear on this list as the revenue passenger-kilometers list, there are a couple of additional airlines that show up. And one of them has a cabin that you’ll want to avoid even more than Ryanair’s.
- American Airlines (950 aircraft)
- Delta Air Lines (850 aircraft)
- United Airlines (745 aircraft)
- Southwest Airlines (697 aircraft)
- China Southern (545 aircraft)
- China Eastern (486 aircraft)
- Ryanair (413 aircraft)
- Air China (392 aircraft)
- FedEx Express (371 aircraft)
- Turkish Airlines (329 aircraft)
While American still holds the top spot, Chinese airlines may soon dethrone it. Having already risen to 610 active aircraft at the time of this writing, China Southern announced its ambitious plan last year to have a fleet of more than 1,000 aircraft by 2020.
FedEx’s service may be ideal for boxes and other freight, but human passengers are likely to find both the hard and soft products rather lacking.
Emirates took the number four spot on revenue passenger-kilometers. However, with its fleet consisting almost entirely of large wide-body aircraft, it accomplished that feat with only 268 aircraft, falling short of Turkish Airlines’ 329.
It should be noted that this list contains only aircraft actually operated by each carrier, not regional aircraft operated by airlines under contract with the listed carriers.
While massive airlines like the US Big Three and the ME3 may move a lot of passengers, their networks are based primarily on a hub-and-spoke model, limiting the number of non-stop routes between the cities in their expansive networks.
Many low-cost carriers, however, arrange their route networks for more point-to-point traffic. This pattern is reflected in anna.aero’s list of the world’s top ten airlines by number of routes for Summer of 2019 schedules.
- Ryanair (1831 routes)
- American Airlines (1,106 routes)
- United Airlines (950 routes)
- easyJet (945 routes)
- Delta Air Lines (939 routes)
- Southwest Airlines (754 routes)
- China Southern Airlines (667 routes)
- China Eastern Airlines (648 routes)
- Wizz Air (615 routes)
- Air China and TUI Airways (tie at 470 routes)
While the US Big Three and the ME3 still had strong showings in number of routes, the point-to-point networks of low-cost carriers such as Ryanair, easyJet, Wizz Air and TUI certainly give the latter group a major advantage in this metric.
The methodology of considering Northern hemisphere summer schedules probably biases the results somewhat in favor of airlines based in the Northern hemisphere. However, every airline on the list is based in the Northern hemisphere anyway, so the top ten spots were unlikely to have been affected by this bias.
For now, American, Delta, United and Southwest sit at or near the top in nearly every metric for measuring the world’s largest airlines. However, with the rapid growth of air traffic in the Asia-Pacific region, it’s likely that Chinese carriers and others in the region will continue to climb the ranks of the world’s largest airlines in the years to come.
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Image by John M Lund Photography Inc / Getty Images