The World’s Biggest Airline


Air travel collapsed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Carriers laid off workers, mothballed planes and lost massive sums of money. In the United States, the federal government had to come to their financial rescue. The layoffs ended up putting out tens of thousands of workers, who were helped by government assistance as well.

The desire of people to travel by air returned quickly, despite the dangers of the spread of the virus. Airlines reopened for business. What was first a trickle of traffic quickly turned into a torrent. The holiday period was particularly robust. By early this year, travel to Europe and domestic locations matched pre-pandemic traffic.

The airlines were caught flatfooted. They could not bring back enough planes, pilots, cabin crew, reservations personnel and engineers to handle the volume rebound. Customers faced long lines, canceled flights and schedule cutbacks due to the lack of planes or airline workers.

The problem of undercapacity continues to face the airlines, and their ability to handle demand may be months away.

Aviation analytics firm Cirium has looked at global air traffic by carrier. Its new study looked at figures for 2021, 2020 and 2019. Its authors pointed out: “After the devastating collapse of passenger traffic in 2020, it was just about inevitable that the world’s airlines would start to see the numbers recover in 2021.” Unfortunately, the numbers do not include 2022, when the real rebound in air traffic hit full stride.

The primary result of the research was a list of the top 100 carriers ranked by passenger traffic. The data also included seating capacity and load factor.

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Four carriers based in the United States were the largest. Interestingly, the carriers in China fell well down the list, even though its population is well over four times the size of America’s.

ALSO READ: The 10 Busiest Airports in the World

American Airlines, one of the most iconic U.S. airlines, topped the list with passenger traffic of 237 million in 2021, up 92% from 2020 and down 31% from 2019. American was followed by Continental, United and Southwest.

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