Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Why Emirates Isn’t Middle East’s Biggest Airline Anymore (and who’s now!)

For many years, Emirates has been proud to call itself the biggest airline in the Middle East. Moreover, the airline achieved top results in terms of global size rankings. However, Corona seems to changes everything — at least temporarily. Here's why and which airline stole the prestigious award of being Middle East's biggest airline.

Corona Crashed Emirates’ Business Model

For many years, and even decades, Emirates was Middle East’s biggest airline—regardless of how you measured it. You could count the number of aircraft, passengers, destinations, or seat capacity — Emirates was first. Of course, Emirates did not lose its first rank in all of these categories — but we will talk about that later.

Emirates’ business model has been built on one essential pillar: Bringing international passengers to its hub in Dubai and flying international passengers to their destinations out of Dubai. Therefore, Dubai Airport became one of the world’s busiest airports while Emirates became a global player.

With Corona rolling over the world, this business model stopped working from one day to the other. International traffic and routes suffered even more than domestic. Moreover, even more than 12 months after Corona’s first wave, the world’s busiest routes are domestic routes only.

Emirates Airbus A380
Emirates Airbus A380

International Crises Hit International Airlines

Corona exposed an apparent vulnerability of airlines: The more international traffic an airline has, the more it gets impacted by global crises. Accordingly, Emirates, like many other airlines with a reduced or non-existent domestic traffic, suffered most. As a result, Emirates lost ground in many rankings. When looking at revenue passenger kilometers, Emirates lost eight places and ranks 12th among the world’s biggest airlines.

Where Emirates Lost its Pole Position

However, and as mentioned initially, Emirates did not lose its pole position in every area. The airline still operates the biggest fleet, the most A380, and more Boeing 777 than any other airline in the world.

Once we take a look at seat capacity for this upcoming summer, it gets clear that Emirates is no longer Middle East’s biggest airline in this category.

1SaudiaSaudi Arabia20.36
2EmiratesUnited Arab Emirates19.88
3Qatar AirwaysQatar18.69
4Etihad AirwaysUnited Arab Emirates7.26
5flydubaiUnited Arab Emirates6.41
6flynasSaudi Arabia4.56
7Turkish AirlinesTurkey4.07
8Air ArabiaUnited Arab Emirates3.98
9Oman AirOman3.21
10Mahan AirIran3.14
Seat Capacity in Million — Based on OAG Schedule Data


Saudia Becomes Middle East’s Biggest Airline for the First Time!

With 19.88 million seats, Emirates ranks second and loses its first rank to Saudi Arabian’s flag-carrier Saudia. Saudi offers 0.5 million round trip seats more than Emirates. Formerly ranked second, Qatar Airways now ranks third with a capacity of 18.6 million seats. 

Nonetheless, the change in ranking is rather an increased capacity by Saudia than more significant cuts on Emirates’ side. Compared to 2019, Emirates has to cut its capacity by more than 50%, whereas Saudia reduced its capacity by “only” a quarter.

Saudia Airbus A320
Saudia Airbus A320

Saudia Benefits From a Solid Domestic Market

As one of the rare Middle East airlines, and totally contrary to Emirates, Saudia benefits from a solid domestic market. Compared to 2019, Saudia reduced its domestic capacity by only 7%. As a result, Saudia’s domestic route between Jeddah and Riyadh is currently one of the world’s busiest routes. With a capacity of almost 550,000 in May, Jeddah-Riyadh ranks 9th among the world’s busiest routes.

Saudia’s Strategic Plan

Due to the domestic networks with many short-haul flights, Saudia is also the Middle East’s biggest airline by the number of flights. With its new terminal in Jeddah and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, the airline is ready for further growth. However, as outlined by its CEO, Mr. Albrecht, Saudia has no intention to become a copy of Emirates. On the contrary, “the strategy for the next few years will be to focus mainly on those countries where you have a predominantly Muslim population,” says Albrecht.

When will Emirates Reconquer the Prestigious Title?

The question remains when Emirates will reconquer the title of Middle East’s biggest airline by seat capacity. With a progressing global vaccination program and people eager to travel again, it seems like it is only a question of time.

What do you Think?

We’re always happy to get your feedback! Leave us a comment or get in touch with the author on social media!

Share this article
About the author
Author picture

Benjamin Walther

CEO, Frankfurt

Benjamin is Information Design's CEO and a proven content-maniac. Besides running a successful business and developing pioneering ideas, he's dedicated to writing blog posts and creating content.

You might also like