The international aircraft industry is dominated by many large airlines. When you are plane-spotting and looking for different airline liveries, which ones are you most likely to spot? Here are the largest airlines in the world.
Table of Contents
- 15. Emirates (270 aircraft)
- 14. British Airways (287 aircraft)
- 13. LATAM Airlines Group (315 aircraft)
- 12. Lufthansa (354 aircraft)
- 11. Turkish Airlines (383 aircraft)
- 10. Air China (472 aircraft)
- 9. SkyWest (500 aircraft)
- 8. Ryanair (505 aircraft)
- 7. China Eastern Airlines (600 aircraft)
- 6. China Southern Airlines (640 aircraft)
- 5. Southwest Airlines (732 aircraft)
- 4. FedEx Express (800 aircraft)
- 3. United Airlines (841 aircraft)
- 2. Delta Air Lines (874 aircraft)
- 1. American Airlines (913 aircraft)
The aeronautics industry is one of the most powerful industries in the world. Even with recent disruptions to travel, the aeronautics industry generated an estimated 471.8 billion dollars in 2021. That means the largest airlines in the world are pretty powerful juggernauts.
There are over 5,000 airlines in the world that are registered with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) (This is the governing body that gives out airline codes). Most of these airlines are small with a few international players dominating the global and their respective regional markets.
There are a few criteria used to determine the largest airlines in the world. Some lists tally up revenue, others rank airlines by the number of destinations served or the number of passengers served each year. This list uses fleet size as a criterion. Fleet size often correlates with the other criteria listed anyway.
15. Emirates (270 aircraft)
One of the most interesting phenomena of the past few decades or so in the aviation industry is the rise of airlines and airports from the Gulf in international travel. One of the most important airlines from this region is Emirates, one of the flag carriers of the United Arab Emirates. As of 2020, its fleet had 270 units.
This fleet total includes the passenger jets Emirates has at its disposal as well as the cargo planes it uses for its SkyCargo division. Emirates even has a smaller fleet of premium small jets it leases to private VIP clients through Emirates Exclusive. In terms of kilometers flown, it is one of the top airlines in the world.
Besides having one of the largest fleets in the world, Emirates has one of the most modern fleets in the world. This relatively new airline relies on only the most modern aircraft in its design, including the A380 from Airbus and the Boeing 777.
14. British Airways (287 aircraft)
The flagship carrier for the United Kingdom, British Airways, is one of the largest airlines in the world. According to the site Planespotters, the British Airways fleet has 287 aircraft, including the fleets of all of its subsidiaries such as British Regional Airlines and Carib Express.
British Airways is part of an even larger conglomerate, International Airlines Group, which formed in 2011 after British Airways merged with the Spanish flag carrier Iberia. Together, the members of this group have the sixth-largest fleet in the world.
Until a decade ago, British Airways was the largest airline in the world in terms of passenger numbers and ranked higher on the list in terms of fleet size. However, as the aviation industry changes and Heathrow, one of British Airways’ hubs, loses its importance as an international hub, British Airways falls down the list.
13. LATAM Airlines Group (315 aircraft)
LATAM Airlines Group is the largest airline carrier in Latin America. It operates subsidiaries in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Peru. Its total fleet has about 315 aircraft in operation.
LATAM Airlines Group is also one of the largest airlines in the world in terms of connections. It operates out of several hubs, including Chile’s Comodoro Arturo Merino Benitez International Airport and Brazil’s São Paulo Airport. It is the undisputed champion for connections within the continent of South America and connections to other continents.
However, LATAM Airlines Group is certainly not the largest airline in the world in terms of revenue. In fact, the airline filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States in 2020 in an attempt to restructure its debts.
12. Lufthansa (354 aircraft)
Germany’s flagship carrier Lufthansa is one of the largest airlines in Europe and the world. Together with its regional partners, Lufthansa operates a fleet of 354 airplanes.
If this list counted airline groups instead of individual airlines, Lufthansa would probably be much higher on the list. That’s because the Lufthansa Group also operates companies such as Eurowings, Brussels Airlines, Austrian Airlines, and SWISS Air. Together, these airlines make up an impressive fleet with significant connections, particularly within Europe.
In terms of passengers carried, Lufthansa is also an important player with the second-most passengers transported of any airline in Europe. North American and Asian airlines may outmuscle it on the global stage, but it is still one of the largest airlines in Europe.
11. Turkish Airlines (383 aircraft)
It’s no surprise that Turkish Airlines is one of the largest airlines in the world. Its flights make important connections internationally. One of its hub airports, Istanbul Airport, is the busiest airport in Europe. Turkish Airlines is one of the largest airlines in the world in terms of fleet size, operating 383 airplanes.
If this were a list of the most-connected airlines instead of the largest ones, then Turkish Airlines would easily top the list. It flies to more countries and destinations than any other airline in the world. It makes sense that it has such a large fleet because it needs enough aircraft to operate these well-connected flights.
Although Turkish Airlines has been around since the 1930s, it really became an international player in the 1980s. Thanks to expanding its fleet with large liners, positioning itself as a stopover for east-west flights, and a reputation for great service, it is one of the top airlines in the world. Newer airlines in the Middle East such as Emirates are trying to copy its business model.
10. Air China (472 aircraft)
Some of the world’s largest airlines are based in China. One of these, Air China, has a whopping 472 aircraft in its fleet. This number will only grow because Air China is planning to order over 30 airplanes that are in various stages of planning.
China actually has many different airlines (three of which are on this list). The difference between Air China and some of the others is that it is the PRC’s main flag carrier, putting it above the other two airlines in the “Big Three” of airlines serving the Chinese mainland.
Air China formed in the 1980s after the Chinese government split the Civil Aviation Administration of China. Air China received most of the intercontinental flights, although the airline now operates many domestic flights as well thanks to its takeover of Shenzhen Airlines. From its hubs in Beijing, Chengdu, and Shanghai, it reaches Europe, the Americas, and Australia.
9. SkyWest (500 aircraft)
United States-based airlines are some of the largest in the world thanks to the importance of air travel in the United States due to the country’s size and relative lack of trains. SkyWest, which is a relatively small regional carrier in the United States, is one of the largest airlines worldwide in terms of fleet size. It has just over 500 airplanes in its fleet.
SkyWest primarily connects cities in the western United States. It has hubs in Chicago, Detroit, Denver, and a few other cities west of the Mississippi.
SkyWest has such a large fleet because it operates as a contractor for other, more prominent airlines such as Alaska Airlines.
8. Ryanair (505 aircraft)
The Irish Ryanair, one of the top budget airlines in the world, manages to have a pretty impressive fleet despite the low prices it charges for its flights. As of summer 2022, it has a fleet that includes 505 airplanes.
Ryanair’s fleet mostly consists of smaller planes because the airline connects destinations within Europe. However, it has such a large fleet because it flies to so many destinations in Europe. Instead of having just one base, by the 2010s Ryanair already had 44 bases throughout Europe.
Ryanair is neither the first nor the largest budget airline (Southwest Airlines innovated the model.), but it is one of the largest airlines operating in this way by relying on international flights.
7. China Eastern Airlines (600 aircraft)
China Eastern Airlines is one of the Chinese “Big Three,” the three biggest airlines serving continental China. It has the second-biggest fleet of the three, operating about 600 planes.
China Eastern Airlines also takes second place in the rankings of Chinese airlines in terms of passenger numbers transported.
Like Air China, China Eastern Airlines was formed when the Chinese government disbanded the Civil Aviation Administration of China. It operates many intercontinental flights, including a direct flight from Shanghai to New York, as well as domestic flights, showing the airline’s versatility.
6. China Southern Airlines (640 aircraft)
China Southern Airlines is the last and the largest of the airlines that make up China’s Big Three. As of 2022, it has a fleet of 640 aircraft. The largest portion of its fleet is large jets such as Boeing 737s.
Besides being the largest carrier in China, China Southern Airlines is the largest airline in Asia in terms of fleet size, passengers, and even revenue. It uses Guangzhou’s Baiyun Airport as a hub, which is one of the busiest airports in the world.
Although the initial division of the Civil Aviation Administration of China planned to give most intercontinental flights to Air China, China Southern Airlines now operates many international and intercontinental flights. It also has many routes between Chinese cities and Central and Southeast Asian airports.
5. Southwest Airlines (732 aircraft)
Southwest Airlines is the United States’ largest budget airline carrier and one of its largest airlines overall, which is pretty impressive considering the US has the world’s five largest airlines. Southwest Airlines operates a fleet of 732 planes.
What’s interesting is that all 732 planes in Southwest’s fleet are the same type of plane, the Boeing 737. Southwest Airlines was the first airline to focus on just one type of plane to cut costs.
Southwest Airlines was the innovator of the budget airlines model.
4. FedEx Express (800 aircraft)
One of the largest airlines in the world doesn’t carry a single passenger. FedEx Express, a cargo airline, operates a fleet totaling 800 planes.
FedEx is the largest cargo airline in the world. It uses planes to transport packages across the United States. Its hubs, including the airport in Memphis, are some of the busiest cargo airports in the world.
FedEx is the largest buyer of many common cargo airplanes such as the Airbus A300 and Cessna 208.
3. United Airlines (841 aircraft)
United Airlines is one of the biggest airlines in the world. It has a fleet of 841 airplanes.
United Airlines is also one of the best-connected airlines in the world. Its routes span the globe, connecting all six inhabited continents as well as many destinations within the United States.
United Airlines is also an important player in the history of aviation. It was founded in the 1920s by connecting a few smaller airlines, hence the name “United,” long before commercial aviation was established. It helped found Star Alliance, the conglomeration that shaped modern travel. However, its size shows that United is not content to rest on its laurels.
2. Delta Air Lines (874 aircraft)
Delta Air Lines is one of the largest airlines in the world in terms of fleet size, passengers transported, and several other metrics. It has a fleet of 874 planes.
According to some other metrics, Delta Air Lines is the largest airline in the world. For example, it is the largest in terms of revenue, beating out American Airlines.
Everything is bigger when it is connected to Delta. Delta’s hub for domestic and international travel is Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport, which is the busiest airport in the world for several years running.
1. American Airlines (913 aircraft)
The largest airline in the world is American Airlines. This United States-based carrier has an impressive fleet with a whopping 913 airplanes, and that’s not including any subsidiaries.
American Airlines is the largest airline in the world by a few other metrics, including passengers carried and scheduled kilometers flown. It is second in terms of revenue and brand value.
American Airlines is so big and successful even in the competitive U.S. aviation market thanks to a series of strategic mergers with airlines such as TWA and U.S. Airways that granted it a large portion of the market size. American Airlines is also continuously upgrading its planes, so it can expand into more long-distance international routes.