Is American Still The World’s Largest Airline?

Filed Under: American

For the past several years American has been the world’s largest airline by most metrics. That title went from Delta to United to American:

  • When Delta merged with Northwest, they became the world’s largest airline
  • When United merged with Continental, they became the world’s largest airline
  • When American merged with US Airways, they became the world’s largest airline

Suffice to say that bigger isn’t always better. That being said, American does love mentioning how they’re the world’s biggest airline. For example, the inflight credit card pitch from flight attendants starts with “American and US Airways have merged to form the world’s largest airline.”

Well, as it turns out, that’s no longer the case… at least not as consistently as it used to be.

As noted by Edward Russell, using the most important metrics, Delta or United are now the world’s largest airline, depending on which metric you want to use. At least that’s the case based on results in the second quarter of 2019:

  • In terms of revenue, Delta is the largest airline, followed by American, followed by United
  • In terms of available seat miles, United is the largest airline, followed by American, followed by Delta

Delta 737

Now, there are some metrics by which American is still the largest:

  • In terms of number of employees, American has the most, followed by United, followed by Delta (which is just to say that they aren’t very efficient)
  • In terms of mainline fleet size, American has the largest fleet, followed by Delta, followed by United

Historically the metric of largest airline has generally been based on either available seat miles or revenue, and in those areas American is no longer the biggest.

It will be interesting to see how these numbers evolve over the coming years, accounting for the different strategies the “big three” US airlines are taking with taking delivery of new planes, retiring old planes, and more.

  1. I guess United has more seats miles mainly due to the frequency of longer trans-Atlantic and (especially) many trans-Pacific flights? Multiple directs to China/HKG, Australia, NZ, hub in Guam, direct to Singapore. Oh and EWR-BOM now that it’s back.

  2. As I asked in another post: when was the last time American added any international year-round destination? Was it like over three years ago? They definitely don’t look like one of the largest in terms of international footprint.

  3. I’ve always counted largest by fleet size. Sure it’s flawed but AA does have a huge fleet.

  4. Why is American “not very efficient” by having the largest number of employees? Keep in mind that American flies most of their regional flights themselves (they fully own 3 out of 7 carriers which together represent a majority of their regional flights). Delta only owns one, and United owns none. American also ground-handles a lot of their own flights with relatively minimal outsourcing.

    I’m not sure this is intentional or not, but you seem to criticize American disproportionately. It certainly has a lot of issues, but it’s not as bad as you constantly seem to make it.

  5. Various airlines claim the title of ‘biggest airline’ by various metrics –
    Emirates, for instance, claims to be the ‘biggest International airline’ (i.e. most seat-miles internationally).
    Lufthansa Group by the largest by number of employees
    Turkish Airlines by number of countries served
    United Airlines by number of destinations served.
    Ryanair by number of routes served.

  6. AA is #1 for passengers carried. Historically this was all that mattered in the public arena, and then everything else followed on the street, ASM’s etc were broken out by analysts (which) passengers who care, do not care about.

  7. What about Fedex and UPS? I thought one of them was the worlds largest airline? Or am I mistaken?

  8. In terms of public perception, most people probably equate largest with either routes served or number of departures. They might also be side-tracked by prestige which of course is too woolly to be a metric. Perhaps number of planes or number of passengers. But I don’t think revenue or ASMs would figure in most people’s calculations.

  9. None of these metrics really matter, because in reality, the US3 are small fry on the international scale. Sure they fly gazillions of routes WITHIN North America (and it’s actually mostly their various subsidiaries), but outside of this, they hardly rate a mention. And that’s despite their terrible reputations.

  10. There are many examples of where things are overly-exaggerated within the USA for the national audience (you might even call it propaganda!). E.g. Gilroy California calls itself the “Garlic Capital of the World”, when in reality the entire USA is #11 in terms of world garlic production and only produces 0.7% of the production that China (#1) produces. So a self-proclaimed “World’s Largest Airline” slogan doesn’t carry much weight with the international audience.

  11. American also bought out TWA…they’ve got a lot of ex TWA employees not just US Airways….I’m an ex TWA employee so they hold a special place in my heart

  12. @Zich AA just added Miami to Córdoba, Argentina year-round as of June (service four times a week).

  13. @Zich AA added year round PHX-LHR. They’ve also added plenty of seasonal routes which are based on demand. Adding new international service for the fun of it is dumb.

    @Ben what’s the point of this? You know and state above there is clear metric for this. You continue with this click bait stuff. It’s dumb, and hurts your brand. You should stop it.

  14. Regarding “which airlines has the largest”, I list below the Metrics that should really matter to any man with a minimum of self-esteem:
    _ Largest number of quality lounges per business passenger
    _ Largest number of attractive cabin crew per row
    _ Largest number of 1st tier capitals routes per network size
    _ Highest selection of quality meals per dollar spent

  15. AA is pretty horrible. If I had not gone standby on my flight today, I would be spending another night in Dallas due to a missed connection. My AA flights last weekend were the biggest goat rodeo I have ever seen. Late departure to ORD, boarded connection and then had a “maintenance issue” pop up. Un-boarded the entire plane and re-boarded at smaller plane at another gate. Seats changed for everyone and no one was in charge. AA needs a management overhaul. They are going for great, but they are not even reasonably close to good.

  16. we have a tendency of bragging too much…like we are the only ones that exist. largest this, biggest that, highest etc. and in the process have become the laughing stock. The fact remains, whether it is American, United or Delta, our airlines have the poorest service, passengers can be left stranded “due to the act of God” and in the name of safety, our airlines have mastered the art of treating passengers poorly.

  17. The metric used by finance industry for determine carrier size is RPM, or revenue passenger miles. That equates to carrying one fare paying passenger one mile. Southwest may carry more passengers than Delta, but their RPMs pale in comparison due to Delta’s vast international system.

  18. I always thought the “largest airline” should be the one with most fleet movement and most pax carried.

    But what do I know? lol

    Lets just say all 3 are close enough.

  19. I’m more interested in BEST not BIGGEST ! Unfortunately that is all relative; best of a bad bunch is all any of them can aspire to.

  20. @Dennis I LMAO at you. AA, DL, and UA dwarves any other carrier in the World in terms of revenue. Say what you will, but that’s what it matters, not how many flights from IST to God-forgotten places in Africa you fly…

  21. American loyalty program and service has gone down the drain. I have switched to Delta Medallion and they are beyond great service. Delta lounges are the closest to international lounges with great service and pour ypur own alcohol. JFK lounge os magnificent. American lounges and service are poor cheap and just robbery. You can’t even get award availability for international business anymore. Stop wasting your time earning advantage miles to fly partner carriers. Delta has great partners as does Alaska. Those are my new 2 go to airlines.

  22. The fact that there’s a ‘Big Three’ highlights why US airlines don’t have a great reputation and how an airline such as United can get away with a video of a passenger being dragged down the aisle and not take a hit on its bottom line. The number of mergers and acquisitions over the years has reduced competition to such a large extent that there is little incentive to improve service quality.

  23. @k +2

    I totally agree. If I wanted to read pointless travel related stuff, I’d read TPG. As a long time reader, it’s unfortunate how much click-bait stuff has been posted on this blog lately.

  24. Surely you should just recognise this is little more than marketing puffery from AA?

    I’m sure many carriers can make similar claims, but it makes no difference to passengers really?

    Some thoughts on why any comparisons will be largely meaningless:

    – Do the number of destinations, seats, planes include those operated by regional airlines? Does it matter if these are owned by the airline or not? What about code-shares, joint ventures?
    – Does big = best? What does best mean anyway (a lovely J cabin on long haul doesn’t mean that regional coach on a clapped out 707 would be nice)
    – Does big = useful to consumers? AA may say they are biggest, but they aren’t going to get me from Salt Lake City to Baltimore.

    Meaningful statements may help customers make decisions, such as:
    – [xxx] airways operates more international routes than anyone else from [city]
    – [xxx] airways operates the most fuel efficient fleet in the US
    – [xxx] airways scores highest amongst US carriers for labour relations
    – [xxx] airways has had the best on-time performance

    But these always seem to be conspicuously absent, almost as if companies don’t like being held to specifics!

    BA used to market themselves as ‘the worlds favourite airline’….

  25. US carriers small-fry on the international stage? Come on, don’t be ridiculous.

    US carriers are 1, 2, 3 and 4 for passengers carried.
    US carriers are 1, 2, 4, and 7 for revenue (and that’s including conglomerates like Lufthansa Group and IAG)
    US carriers are 1, 2, 3 and 9 by available seat miles.
    US carriers are 1, 2, 3 and 4 by fleet size
    US carriers are 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 by number of destinations served

    Sure, US carriers don’t have the international network that Emirates does. But 2 of the 8 carriers that fly to every continent are American (Delta and United, funny enough, not American :P)

  26. @k +3


    I also read this article, and bypassed the ANA trip report just posted, because even though I’m actually very interested in flight reviews, I’ve read dozens of ANA first class reports over the years and even flown it a couple of times – what more is there to know?

    By the end of the day this article will probably have 4-5X the comments for a fraction of the effort, and I would guess that comments are a metric that are watched quite closely, if not most importantly, in the blog business (on freshly published posts).

    I’m not saying I like it, and as a longtime reader I’ll admit I’m getting bored and will likely stop reading regularly, but I think it’s just a product of knowledge. I once knew nothing about airlines, and now I know a moderate amount, and find most blog posts (including reviews) rather boring.

    Maybe it’s time to learn a new hobby or find a new interest rather than complaining….

  27. @Dennis

    Your first comment makes no sense. The US3 operate large international networks and large domestic networks, because the US is a large country. Emirates is a small fry on the international scale, unless you want to go to Dubai. Cathay is a small fry on the international scale unless you want to go to Hong Kong. Singapore is a small fry, unless you want to go to Singapore. Fact is, none of those airlines come anywhere close to the size of the US3 no matter how good their F product is.

    As far as I’m concerned, the only metric that matters is number of passengers carried, and by that measurement, AA is still the largest. The US3 are generating a lot of revenue from their credit card partnerships these days, and that has nothing to do with the size of the airline so it’s not a very good metric.

  28. “Suffice to say that bigger isn’t always better. ” Indeed American Airlines is definitely not the Best airlines in the US & in the world.
    The size of an airlines might be important for investors but not for passengers who care only about safety,service and reasonably priced tickets.

  29. United’s Polaris “business” class is a 2-4-2. That’s not business class. I’m sorry, it’s just not. Also not sorry. That’s premium economy at best.

  30. @Tony What world are you living in where Delta has great partners? United has the best partners, but American has a few good ones too, like JAL, Cathay, and Qatar (and despite the hate it gets, I really like BA Club World, though I guess they’re transitioning to a more widely popular layout).

    What does Delta have? China Eastern? I’d rather fly Delta across the Pacific. I’d much rather have United miles, but between AA and Delta, I’d much rather have AAdvantage miles.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *