Close this search box.
Close this search box.

China vs. America: Here are the Top 15 Airlines in May 2021

Driven by a strong rebound of the aviation industry, the list of the world's top 15 biggest airlines is heavily in motion. We've analyzed the latest traffic figures and presented the top 15 biggest airlines in the world — in May 2021.

The World’s Top 15 Airlines

Good news first: It seems that the airline industry is making progress and has started to leave the crisis behind. In fact, many airlines and regions still suffer from Coronacrisis, and there’s still a long way to go. However, the lights have turned green. After many airlines had reached another bottom due to the third wave, an increase in traffic is undeniable. So here’s an overview of the content of this blog post:

World’s Top 15 Airlines — What we analyzed

The data shown in this blog post is based on official ICAO traffic figures. Moreover, the ranking is based on revenue passenger kilometers (RPK) operated in March 2021.

Key Takeaways

  • Compared to February 2021, the world’s top 15 airlines increased their traffic by 60%.
  • In total, the top 15 airlines operated 126 billion RPK in March 2021 (79 billion in February 2021)
  • In terms of RPK, the Top 15 airlines accounted for 55% of the world’s total RPK in March 2021. That’s a reduction of 8 pp. compared to February 2021.
  • Compared to pre-CORONA traffic, the traffic figures declined by 57.9% (March 2021 vs. March 2019).

China vs. America

On top of the list, the battle between Chinese and American airlines continues. Whereas American, United, and Delta conquered ranks 1 to 3 in February, Chinese airlines stroke back in March. As a result, China Southern and China Eastern Airlines rank 1st and 3rd again. Moreover, China Airlines reconquered the 4th rank. On the other end, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines lost positions and rank 5th and 6th.

With Spring Airlines on rank 15th, 9 out of 15 top airlines are based in China or the United States. And on top of that, the eight biggest airlines among the top 15 are either from China or the United States.

Let’s have a look at the detailed results!

World’s Top 15 Airlines — Ranking Overview

RankAirlineCountryRPK (billion)RPK Change (billion)Rank Change
1China Southern AirlinesChina17.3+9.5+3
2American AirlinesUnited States15.7+5.9-1
3China Eastern AirlinesChina11.9+6.5+2
4Air ChinaChina11.6+6.3+2
5Delta Air LinesUnited States10.9+2.4-3
6United AirlinesUnited States10.4+2.5-3
7Southwest AirlinesUnited States9.4+4.1
8Hainan AirlinesChina6.7+2.8+2
9Air France / KLMFrance6.6+1.4-1
11Turkish AirlinesTurkey4.9+1.2
12Qatar AirwaysQatar4.3+0.9
13Lufthansa GroupGermany3.7+1.1+2
14EmiratesUnited Arab Emirates3.7+0.7-1
15Spring AirlinesChina3.3NEW
World’s Top 15 Airlines By RPK in May 2021

Top 15 Airlines in Detail

#1 — China Southern

China Southern impressed with an enormous increase in terms of RPK. Compared to February, the Chinese carrier almost doubled its revenue passenger kilometers. As a result, China Southern Airlines operated 17.3 billion RPKs — 1.6 billion more than American Airlines on rank two. And even more impressive: China Southern operated more RPKs than the combined RPKs of Emirates, Lufthansa Group, Qatar Airways, and Turkish Airlines. Subsequently, China Southern surpassed American Airlines again and ranks as the world’s biggest airline in May 2021.

China Southern — World's 15 Top Airlines

Airline Information
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

#2 — American Airlines

After one month back at the top of the list, American Airlines lost the first rank to China Southern again. However, American Airlines recorded solid growth of ~50% and operated 15.7 billion revenue passenger kilometers. Compared to other carriers from the United States, American Airlines shows the biggest growth rates.

American Airlines — World's 15 Top Airlines

Airline Information
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

#3 — China Eastern

China Eastern Airlines re-enters the top 3 of the biggest airlines with an enormous growth of 6.5 billion RPKs. Therefore, China Eastern surpassed United Airlines and Delta Airlines — compared to the February ranking.

China Eastern — World's 15 Top Airlines

Airline Information
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

#4 — Air China

Similar to China Southern and China Eastern, Air China recorded a massive growth in March 2021. Accordingly, the airlines surpassed United and Delta and ranked 4th. On top of that, with 11.6 billion revenue passenger kilometers, Air China is pretty close to China Southern on rank three.

Air China — World's 15 Top Airlines

Airline Information
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


#5 — Delta Air Lines

Delta Air Lines is one of the two “big losers” of March’s top 15 airlines ranking. As a result, the airline loses three positions and ranks “only” fifth among the world’s top airlines, according to RPK. Although Delta increased its RPK by some 25% compared to February, it couldn’t keep up with competitor’s growth rates. Delta operated 10.9 billion revenue passenger kilometers in March, increasing 2.4 billion compared to February 2021.

Delta Air Lines — World's 15 Top Airlines

Airline Information
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. In addition, 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

#6 — United Airlines

Similar to Delta, United Airlines loses three positions and ranks 6th among the top 15 airlines. However, traffic growth is also similar to Delta with an increase of 2.5 billion revenue passenger kilometers. Accordingly, United Airlines recorded 10.4 RPKs.

United Airlines — World's 15 Top Airlines

Airline Information
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

#7 — Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines managed to defeat its rank and remains at position 7 among the world’s top airlines. Southwest recorded solid growth of 4.1 billion revenue passenger kilometers compared to the previous month. The absolute growth outperforms United and Delta. If Southwest can continue on this path, it might surpass Delta and United during the next month(s).

Southwest Airlines — World's 15 Top Airlines

Airline Information
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: Wikipedia

#8 — Hainan Airlines

Although Hainan Airlines recorded a moderate growth (in terms of absolute RPKs) compared to other Chinese airlines, it managed to climb two positions. As a result, the Chinese airline ranks 8th. However, and on the other side, Hainan Airlines grew its RPK by almost 70% compared to the previous month.

Hainan Airlines — World's 15 Top Airlines

Airline Information
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

#9 — Air France / KLM

Compared to the previous month, Air France / KLM loses on position and ranks 9th. Nevertheless, the France / Dutch airline group recorded an absolute growth of 1.4 billion revenue passenger kilometers. Accordingly, Air France / KLM operated 6.6 billion RPKs in March 20212.

Air France — World's 15 Top Airlines

Airline Information
Air France / KLM is a France-Dutch airline group. Besides the main carriers, Air France and KLM, the group consists of Transavia, Hop, or Martinair airlines. 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 Paris and Amsterdam. 

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

#10 — Aeroflot

Due to the climb of Hainan Airlines, Aeroflot also loses one position and ranks 10th among the top 15 airlines. Nevertheless, Aeroflot increased its RPKs by 1.2 billion in March — summing up to a total revenue passenger kilometers of 5.8 billion.

Aeroflot — World's 15 Top Airlines

Airline Information
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

#11 — Turkish Airlines

Turkish Airlines defeats its position and continues to rank 11th among the top 15 airlines. Turkish Airlines operated 4.9 billion revenue passenger kilometers — an increase of 1.2 billion compared to February 2021.

Turkish Airlines — World's 15 Top Airlines

Airline Information
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 — Qatar Airways

Similar to Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways defeated its position. Qatar Airways operated 4.3 billion RPKs in March, reflecting a growth of 0.9 billion compared to February 2021.

Qatar Airways — World's 15 Top Airlines

Airline Information
Qatar Airways is the state-owned flag carrier of Qatar. The airline is headquartered and operates out of its hub in Doha. The carrier has a fleet of 235 aircraft consisting of various Airbus and Boeing airplanes. Qatar Airways has approximately 50,000 employees and flies to 173 destinations all over the world. The airline won many awards for its recognized service and product quality. On top of that, the airline has its own loyalty program, called Privilege Club.

Find out everything about Qatar on our dedicated Qatar Airways information page.

Qatar Airways A380

#13 — Lufthansa Group

Based on a solid growth of 1.1 billion revenue passenger kilometers, the Lufthansa Group climbs two positions and ranks 13th among the top 15 airlines. Lufthansa operated 3.7 billion RPKs in March 2021.

Lufthansa — World's 15 Top Airlines

Airline Information
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 and Asia, North America, Africa, Central and South America.

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

#14 — Emirates

In March 2021, Emirates loses another position and ranks only 14th. Compared to the other airlines, Emirates recorded the lowest increase of RPKs in March 2021.

Emirates — World's 15 Top Airlines

Airline Information
Emirates Airlines was founded in 1985 and operated 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. In addition, 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

#15 — Spring Airlines

China’s Spring Airlines enters the list of the world’s top 15 airlines for the first time at rank 15. The Chinese carrier surpassed Chile’s LATAM, which is no longer among the top 15 list. Spring Airlines operated 3.3 billion RPKs in March 2021.

Spring Airlines — World's 15 Top Airlines

Top 15 Airlines — What’s Your Opinion?

We’re always happy to get your feedback. Just leave a comment below 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