Coronavirus crowns Southwest the world’s largest airline by seat count (for now)

Apr 17, 2020

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It’s a strange time in the aviation sphere.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a historic drought in demand for air travel — so much so that airlines around the world are slashing their networks, with some going as far as temporarily ending flights altogether until the outbreak subsides.

That’s led to at least one unexpected superlative: Southwest Airlines is now the largest carrier in the world as measured by seats flown.

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Southwest’s new (and likely fleeting) ranking is based on information from travel data company OAG.

According to OAG, Southwest was scheduled to fly just over 3 million seats during the week of April 13, compared to less than 1 million on United in the same period.

Now, it’s worth noting that the “world’s biggest airline” total is more typically denoted by metrics like total revenue or passenger seat miles — and both of those counts are also in a state of flux right now, too. American has been the largest by both of those standards for the better part of the past five years, though it split the title with Delta in 2019.

Still, that Southwest could move to No. 1 in the world by “seats flown” count underscores just how pervasive the shakeup caused by coronavirus has been in the airline industry.

Either way, however, its stay at the top will almost certainly be short-lived as airline schedules fluctuate wildly in response to the coronavirus crisis.

Related: Cobranded credit cards may help airlines recover from COVID-19.

Southwest itself could be forced to make additional cuts. And, more broadly, carriers like American and Delta could rebound as they begin to grow their schedules again this summer.

The upheaval in schedules is underscored by the fact that nearly 200 airlines have stopped flying altogether during the pandemic.

John Grant, OAG’s executive vice president, noted that 790 airlines had published scheduled flights during the week of Jan. 20, before the coronavirus outbreak had spiraled worldwide. By April 13, that number had dropped to just 590 airlines —  “exactly 200 fewer airlines or 25% fewer than just 12 weeks earlier,” according to Grant.

Split title? American and Delta were the world’s largest airlines in 2019

“Amongst those carriers not operating are Ryanair, EasyJet, Air Asia and Turkish Airlines, all of whom would normally be operating more than one million seats a week at this time of year,” he added.

As for Southwest, its business model is likely one reason its schedules have been less affected by coronavirus than other airlines. Its point-to-point network means it can be more difficult for Southwest to consolidate flights than it is for some of its competitors, which tend toward a hub-and-spoke model.

Also, because Southwest currently flies only two variants of the Boeing 737 (not counting the grounded MAX), it has limited ability to downsize aircraft on routes where demand has slipped away.

Review: Feel the LUV: Southwest 737-800 from Oakland

Earlier this week, Southwest’s CEO Gary Kelly was clear that he wants to avoid laying off employees and reducing the airline’s network as much as possible, even as the demand depression drags on. And Southwest has applied for grants under the CARES Act to support its payroll. That funding comes with minimum service requirements and other terms that keep the airline operating more capacity than the market demands as well.

Featured photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images.

Related: Why the Last Row on Southwest Is the Best Place to Fly

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