Corona turned the airline industry upside down and reshuffled the top 15 of the biggest airlines. We analyzed the latest data and present the top 15 biggest airlines in the world in 2021!

world's biggest airlines

Since the outbreak of Corona, the airline industry has been struggling with the massive impact of the pandemic. Many airlines had to ground aircraft, lay off employees, and close routes. However, we wanted to know how Corona impacted the size of the airlines. More precisely, we wanted to know the biggest airlines after one year of Corona.

Therefore, we gathered and analyzed data from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Today, we are thrilled to present the results and list the world’s 15 biggest airlines.

The World’s Biggest Airlines — What and how we Analyzed?

First and very important: There are tons of different ways to define “the biggest airlines.” Revenues, the number of employees, or fleet size are just a few examples. We decided to look at a different figure: Revenue Passenger Kilometers (RPK). One revenue passenger-kilometer means that one passenger is carried on one kilometer. Accordingly, airlines calculate RPKs as the sum of the products obtained by multiplying the number of revenue passengers carried on each flight stage by the corresponding stage distance.

Revenue passenger kilometers are a commonly used figure to assess the size of an airline. That’s why we chose this metric to rank the world’s biggest airlines. To assess the current airlines’ size, we analyzed RPK’s of November 2020, December 2020, and January 2021. We will certainly keep updating the post as soon as new figures are available.

Important: All RPK values shown are RPK in billions!

The World’s Biggest Airlines — Here are the Results!

#15 — LATAM Group

Ranking
LATAM Airlines Group kicks off the list of the world’s biggest airlines. With cumulated RPK of 10.7 billion, LATAM is only slightly behind Lufthansa. Between November 2020 and January 2021, LATAM’s RPK maintained at a stable level of 3.x billion. Compared to pre-COVID, LATAM’s RPK fell 66%.

World's biggest airlines — #15 LATAM Group
World’s biggest airlines — #15 LATAM Group

Base data
LATAM is the largest airline group in South America with subsidiaries in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Peru. The airline operates a combined fleet of more than 300 aircraft from hubs in different countries. Moreover, LATAM operates flights to more than 120 destinations. Pre-COVID the airline had 43,000 employees.

File:LATAM Brazil Airbus A350-900 F-WZGU (to PR-XTE) (28915136883).jpg
LATAM Aircraft, Source: Wikipedia

#14 — Lufthansa Group

Ranking
Based on its business model, the Lufthansa Group is affected massively by Corona. In pre-COVID time, Lufthansa usually ranked as the 6th or 7th biggest airline in the world. However, due to the pandemic, Lufthansa struggles with an 83% RPK reduction. From November 2020 to January 2021 Lufthansa operated 10.9 billion RPKs. Compared to pre-COVID, the Lufthansa Group lost more than 7 places (usually ranked at position 6)

World's biggest airlines — #14 Lufthansa Group
World’s biggest airlines — #14 Lufthansa Group

Base data
The Lufthansa Group consists of several European airlines, such as Lufthansa, Swiss International Airlines, Austrian Airlines, Brussels Airlines, or Eurowings. The group airlines operated out of their bases in Frankfurt, Munich, Vienna, and Zurich. In total, the airline group has more than 700 aircraft and, before COVID-19, almost 140,000 employees. The airline operates flights to hundreds of European destinations, as well as Asia, North America, Africa, Central and South America.

File:D-AINL Lufthansa A320neo Weinheim an der Bergstraße (45105404071).jpg
Lufthansa Aircraft, Source: Wkipedia

#13 — Turkish Airlines

Ranking
Turkey’s flag carrier, Turkish Airlines, operated cumulated RPK’s of 11.8 billion from November 2020 to January 2021. Accordingly, the airline is the world’s 13th biggest airline. Compared to pre-COVID time, Turkish Airlines had to reduce RPKs by 68%.

World's biggest airlines — #13 Turkish Airlines
World’s biggest airlines — #13 Turkish Airlines

Base data
Turkish Airlines is Turkey’s biggest airline. With a fleet of 362 aircraft and some 40,000 employees. The airline operates flights to 126 countries, more than any other airline in the world. Turkish Airlines has its main hub in Istanbul and operates a secondary hub in Izmir.

Find out everything about Turkish Airlines on our dedicated Turkish Airlines information page.

File:TC-JVU B738 Turkish Airlines (29338111550).jpg
Turkish Airlines Aircraft, Source: Wikipedia

#12 — Emirates

Ranking
Based on RPK’s, Emirates Airlines is another carrier that was hit massively by Corona. A year-on-year comparison between January 2020 and January 2021 shows an RPK reduction of 83%. On average, Emirates operated 4.1 billion RPK’s between November 2020 and January 2021, summing up to 12.3 billion RPK’s. Compared to pre-COVID, Emirates lost 8 places.

World's biggest airlines — #12 Emirates
World’s biggest airlines — #12 Emirates

Base data
Emirates Airlines was founded in 1985 and operates out of its base in Dubai. The airline operates a fleet of 250 aircraft mainly Airbus A380 and Boeing B777. With more than 100 Airbus A380, Emirates is the world’s biggest operator of this aircraft. Emirates Airlines flies to more than 150 destinations all over the world. Pre-COVID, the airline had more than 60,000 employees.

Find out everything about Emirates on our dedicated Emirates information page.

File:Emirates Airbus A380-861 A6-EER MUC 2015 04.jpg
Emirates Aircraft, Source: Wikipedia

#11 — International Airline Group (IAG)

Ranking
Similar to Lufthansa and Emirates, the International Airlines Group (IAG) faced a massive RPK-reduction of 80% compared to pre-COVID time. Accordingly, the British-led airline group ranks as the 11th biggest airline in the world. Between November 2020 and January 2021, IAG airlines operated 12.9 billion RPKs.

World's biggest airlines — #11 International Airline Group
World’s biggest airlines — #11 International Airline Group

Base data
The International Airlines Group is an Anglo-Spanish multinational airline group. Besides British Airways and Iberia, the group consists of airlines such as Vueling, Aer Lingus, or Air Europa. The airline group operates a combined fleet of 530 aircraft and has almost 50,000 employees. In pre-COVID times, the airline group transported almost 120 million passengers annually.

File:British Airways A380-800 F-WWSC (1).jpg
British Airways Aircraft, Source: Wikipedia

Top 10 — The World’s Biggest Airlines

We’re now entering the top 10 of the world’s biggest airlines. We will definitely see some surprise, as Corona brought up some new carriers to the world’s top 10 biggest airlines.

#10 — Aeroflot

Ranking
Compared to many other airlines, it seems that Aeroflot was able to handle the impact of COVID better. Compared to pre-COVID time, Aeroflot faces an RPK reduction of 60%. With a cumulated RPK of 13.6 billion between November 2020 and January 2021, the airline kicks off the top 10 of the world’s biggest airlines.

World's biggest airlines — #10 Aeroflot
World’s biggest airlines — #10 Aeroflot

Base data
Aeroflot was founded in 1923 and is Russia’s flag carrier and biggest airline today. Aeroflot operates a fleet of 244 aircraft out of its hub in Moscow (Moscow Sheremetyevo). The airline has 30,000 employees and flies to more than 240 destinations all over the world.

File:Aeroflot Airbus A320 Beltyukov.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Aeroflot Aircraft, Source: Wikipedia

#9 — Hainan Airlines

Ranking
At position #9 we have the first Chinese airline. And I can promise that we will see some more Chinese airlines the higher we climb the ranking of the world’s biggest airlines. Hainan Airlines operated 18 billion RPK’s between November 2020 and January 2021. Unfortunately, it was not possible to gather pre-COVID data.

World's biggest airlines — #9 Hainan Airlines
World’s biggest airlines — #9 Hainan Airlines

Base data
Hainan Airlines was founded in 1989 and is one of China’s largest airlines. With an aircraft fleet of 220 planes, the airline operates from its hubs in Beijing, Haikou, Xi’an, and Shenzhen. Hainan Airlines has its headquarters in Haikou and operates flights to 110 destinations in Asia, Europe, and North America.

File:Airbus A350-941, Hainan Airlines JP9095347.jpg
Hainan Airlines Aircraft, Source: Wikipedia

#8 — Air France / KLM

Ranking
Compared to its European competitors, it seems that Air France / KLM was able to handle COVID-19 slightly better. With a year-on-year reduction of 72%, Air France / KLM operated 19.8 billion RPK’s between November 2020 and January 2021. However, compared to pre-COVID times, the airline group lost places in terms of the world’s biggest airlines.

World's biggest airlines — #8 Air France / KLM
World’s biggest airlines — #8 Air France / KLM

Base data
Air France / KLM is a France-Dutch airline group. Besides the main carriers, Air France and KLM, the group consists of airlines such as Transavia, Hop, or Martinair. In pre-COVID time, the airline group had more than 85,000 employees and operated 2,300 flights with its 550 aircraft. In 2019, Air France / KLM operated 104 million passengers, mainly from their hubs in Paris and Amsterdam.

File:Air France A380-800(F-HPJD) (5233706017).jpg
Air France Aircraft, Source: Wikipedia

#7 — Southwest Airlines

Ranking
At position #7 of the world’s biggest airlines, we have the first North American airline: Southwest Airlines faced an RPK reduction of 62% compared to pre-COVID and operated 20.3 billion RPK’s from November 2020 to January 2021. However on a monthly basis, the airline, still, operated ~11 billion RPK’s less compared to pre-COVID time.

World's biggest airlines — #7 Southwest Airlines
World’s biggest airlines — #7 Southwest Airlines

Base data
Southwest is one the major airline of the United States and the world’s biggest low-cost carrier. The carrier operates an incredible fleet of 733 aircraft from several bases in the United States (e. g. Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Orlando, etc.). Almost 60,000 employees are responsible for 4,000 daily flights – mainly to the United States, Caribbean, and Central America.

History of Southwest Airlines - Wikiwand
Southwest Aircraft, Source: Wikiwand

#6 — Delta Air Lines

Ranking
With 28.4 billion RPK’s between November 2020 and January 2021, Delta Airlines ranks 6th. Similar to other U.S. carriers, Delta had to deal with an RPK reduction of some 60%. On a monthly basis, the reduction accounts for almost 18 billion RPK’s.

World's biggest airlines — #6 Delta Airlines
World’s biggest airlines — #6 Delta Airlines

Base data
Delta Air Lines, typically referred to as Delta, is another major U.S. carrier. With a fleet of 750 aircraft, Delta operates flights to 325 destinations. The airlines operate several hubs, such as Atlanta, Boston, or Detroit. Pre-COVID, the airline had 91,000 employees and handled 5,400 flights to 52 countries daily.

File:Delta Airlines Boeing 777-200 N862DA.jpg
Delta Aircraft, Source: Wikipedia

Top 5 — The World’s Biggest Airlines

#5 — United Airlines

Ranking
United Airlines kicks off the top 5 of the world’s biggest airlines. Again, similar to the other U.S. carriers, the airline had to manage an RPK reduction of some 60%. The airline operated a cumulated RPK of 28.7 billion between November 2020 and January 2021. However, on a monthly basis, the airline operated 20 billion RPK’s less than in pre-COVID time.

World's biggest airlines — #5 United Airlines
World’s biggest airlines — #5 United Airlines

Base data
United Airlines is another major airline in the United States. Measured by fleet size and the number of routes, United ranks 3rd among the world’s airlines. The airline operates more than 800 aircraft out of its bases in Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Newark, San Fransisco, and Washington. With almost 100,000 employees, United Airlines operates flights to 342 destinations around the world.

File:United Airlines Boeing 777-200ER (N795UA) at Frankfurt Airport.jpg -  Wikimedia Commons
United Airlines aircraft, Source: Wikipedia

#4 — Air China

Ranking
Air China is the second Chinese airline among the world’s biggest airlines. Compared to other airlines, Air China had to face an RPK reduction of “only” 48%. Cumulated, Air China operated 29 billion RPK between November 2020 and January 2021.

World's biggest airlines — #4 Air China
World’s biggest airlines — #4 Air China

Base data
Air China is considered as one of the “Big Three” Chinese airlines. The airline operates a fleet of 450 aircraft and transported more than 100 million passengers in pre-COVID time. Air China flies to more than 200 destinations out of its hubs in Beijing and Chengdu and has 50,000 employees.

File:B-2485 - Air China - Boeing 747-89L - PEK (17038275979).jpg
Air China aircraft, Source: Wikipedia

Top 3 — The World’s Biggest Airlines

#3 — American Airlines

Ranking
At position #3 we have another U.S. airline. American Airline. Again, similar to other U.S. carriers, American had to handle an RPK-reduction of some 60%. On a cumulated view, American Airlines operated 30.8 billion RPK’s between November 2020 and January 2021.

World's biggest airlines — #3 American Airlines
World’s biggest airlines — #3 American Airlines

Base data
American Airlines is a major carrier of the United States. Measured by fleet size, American Airlines is the world’s biggest airline. American operates a fleet of 860 aircraft out of its hubs in Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Phoenix, and Washington. The airline has more than 130,000 employees and handled more than 200 million passengers in pre-COVID time.

File:American Airlines Boeing 777-300ER (N719AN) at Frankfurt Airport.jpg
American Airlines aircraft, Source: Wikipedia

#2 — China Eastern

Ranking
And here we go: The silver medal for the world’s second-biggest airline goes to China Eastern. China Eastern had to manage a relatively small RPK reduction of 31% compared to pre-COVID time. On a cumulated view, China Eastern operated 37.3 billion RPK’s between November 2020 and January 2021.

World's biggest airlines — #2 China Eastern
World’s biggest airlines — #2 China Eastern

Base data
China Eastern is another airline of China’s “Big Three.” The airline has its headquarters in Changning and operates flights from its hubs in Shanghai, Beijing, Kunming, and Xi’an. The mega carrier has a fleet of 580 aircraft and flies to almost 250 destinations. China Eastern is a SkyTeam member and has 80,000 employees.

File:China Eastern Airlines Boeing 737-800; B-5493@HKG;04.08.2011 615rm (6207496947).jpg
China Eastern aircraft, Source: Wikipedia

#1 — China Southern

Ranking
And finally, the gold medal and biggest airline in the world: China Southern. And definitely amazing to see two Chinese airlines in the first two places. China Southern had to manage an RPK reduction of 40%. However, the airline operated 40.6 billion RPK’s from November 2020 to January 2021.

World's biggest airlines — #1 China Souther
World’s biggest airlines — #1 China Souther

Base data
Besides Air China and China Eastern, China Southern is the third of China’s “Big Three” airlines. China Southern has its headquarters in Guangzhou and operates out of its hubs in Beijing and Guangzhou. The airline has more than 620 aircraft and flies to more than 200 destinations. Almost 100,000 employees are responsible for 2,000 daily flights to destinations all over the world.

File:China Southern Airlines B787-9 (B-1128)(30423833267).jpg
China Southern aircraft, Source: Wikipedia

The World’s Biggest Airlines — Your Opinion

We’d love to get your feedback on the ranking. Leave us comment and tell us your opinion. Or get in touch with the author on one of the social media channels below.

Previous

The World’s Best Airports — Here’s the Ultimate Top 10

Next

Safety is First! Here are the World top 15 Safest Airlines in 2021

CEO

Benjamin is a content-maniac, music-lover, aviation-enthusiast, and CEO of Information Design (in this order). His daily business revolves around pioneering solutions to change the way airlines, airports, and aviators use information. His visions are based on expertise gained in more than 15 years in the industry and working with renowned airlines + airports worldwide.