The Largest Airlines in the World by Passenger Count

Tops in Passengers, Fleet, and Market Value

Interior Of An Airplane
Erik Witsoe / EyeEm / Getty Images

Southwest Airlines carried more total system passengers in 2017 than any other U.S. airline. American Airlines carried more passengers on international flights to and from the U.S. in 2017 than any other U.S. or foreign carrier. British Airways carried the most passengers on flights to and from the U.S. of any foreign airline.

A Look at the Numbers

A record 965 million passengers flew on domestic or foreign airlines in 2017, according to the U.S. Transportation Department.

Southwest Airlines carried the most passengers with 157.7 million, and American Airlines had the most international passengers. The top three airlines ranked were Southwest, Delta Air Lines with 145.6 million, American Airlines with 144.9 million.

Key to Success for Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines only operates Boeing 737 jetliner models. Since January 2016, Southwest has been the largest operator of the Boeing 737 worldwide, with over 700 in service and each aircraft averaging six flights per day. Having only one model to maintain ensures that the airline's mechanics know how to fix every plane well and that its parts are essentially interchangeable.  Another key factor that has increased Southwest's ability to grow was the acquisition of AirTran Airways in 2011. As of 2014, AirTran's routes were fully absorbed into Southwest.

Tops in Market Value

American Airlines tops the heap with a whopping $9.1 billion brand value. Delta Air Lines came in second, with an $8.7 billion value, followed by United Airlines ($7 billion). Practically tied for fourth were Emirates and Southwest Airlines both valued at $5.3 billion, each. These statistics were compiled by Brand Finance, a brand valuation consultancy headquartered in London, England.

It is estimated that there are 5,200 commercial airplanes in the air in the world. Of those, American Airlines flies about 1,500 of the planes. 

American Airlines likely leads the market due to the 2015 merger of bankrupt American with the better-run (and not bankrupt) US Airways. A few years earlier, US Airways had been bought out by America West. All of these airlines are now commonly operated as American Airlines. This figure puts the American Airlines nearly 25 percent ahead of their nearest competitor. The airline’s main hub, Dallas-Fort Worth, is a pre-merger monopoly for American, with the original airline operating 85 percent of total passenger traffic at the airport—a number that increased with the merger.

 

Top Airport in the World

The top airport in the world is also the main operating hub of the world's No. 2 airline, Delta—that's Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport. According to the Airports Council International in 2017, Atlanta's airport serviced the most passengers (104 million) in 2017. 

The growth of Delta, which now operates the second-largest fleet on earth, with 5,000 daily flights out of Atlanta is a result of earlier acquisitions, too. Delta’s largest fleet expansion followed the bankruptcy of Pan-Am Airlines in 1991 when Delta took over a selection of its aircraft assets and flight routes. After a more recent merger with Northwest, Delta briefly held the top spot on this list with Delta’s 1,280 aircraft. But, it was surpassed in 2015 by American Airlines.

As for where in the U.S. that more passengers boarded the most international flights, that was at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport. American and Delta both operate major hubs out of JFK Airport.

International Competitors

American-based airlines may dominate the friendly skies now, but China's airline industry is taking off. Atlanta, Georgia, may have the busiest airport in the world, but not far behind is Beijing Capital International Airport with 95 million passengers per year. There are a staggering 182 commercial airports in China, the world’s most populous nation.

According to statistics compiled by Brand Finance, Chinese carriers are rising in value far greater than their American counterparts. Chinese Airline growth has increased by up to 21 percent. China Southern’s brand value has risen by 10 percent in 2018 to $4.1 billion and remains the leader in the Chinese market, ahead of China Eastern, whose value increased by 21 percent to $3.8 billion. Air China comes up third, with a 19 percent increase to $3.4 billion.

For comparison, although American and Delta are industry leaders, American has faced a 7 percent decrease in value in the last 12 months and Delta has gone down by 6 percent.

Another strong competitor, German airliner Lufthansa, has seen its brand value grow tremendously by 29 percent to $2.9 billion. It is being viewed as one of the fastest growing brands in the world. Lufthansa’s sudden boom is likely tied to the collapse of Air Berlin, which increased Lufthansa's market share and the expansion of its flight portfolio.