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

April 17, 2020
4 min read
Coronavirus crowns Southwest the world's largest airline by seat count (for now)
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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.

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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.

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

Featured image by Gado via Getty Images

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

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Why We Chose It

Sometimes it's worth a large investment to reap the benefits of a great credit card. That's exactly the case with the Amex Platinum card. In exchange for the annual fee, you'll unlock access to the Amex Membership Rewards program that let you access airline and hotel transfer partners, along with new lifestyle and travel credits. This card is also incredibly rewarding for travel purchases, helping you rack up a ton of Membership Rewards points for your next award trip.

Pros

  • The current welcome offer on this card is quite lucrative. TPG values it at $1,600.
  • This card comes with a long list of benefits, including access to Centurion Lounges, complimentary elite status with Hilton and Marriott, at least $500 in assorted annual statement credits and so much more. (Enrollment required for select benefits.)
  • The Amex Platinum comes with access to a premium concierge service that can help you with everything from booking hard-to-get reservations to finding destination guides to help you plan out your next getaway.

Cons

  • The high annual fee is only worth it if you’re taking full advantage of the card’s benefits. Seldom travelers may not get enough value to warrant the cost.
  • Outside of the current welcome bonus, you’re only earning higher rewards on specific airfare and hotel purchases, so it’s not a great card for other spending categories.
  • The annual airline fee statement credit can be complicated to take advantage of compared to the broader travel credits offered by competing premium cards.
  • Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on purchases on your new Card in your first 6 months of Card Membership. Apply and select your preferred metal Card design: classic Platinum Card®, Platinum x Kehinde Wiley, or Platinum x Julie Mehretu.
  • Earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year and earn 5X Membership Rewards® Points on prepaid hotels booked with American Express Travel.
  • Get $200 back in statement credits each year on prepaid Fine Hotels + Resorts® or The Hotel Collection bookings, which requires a minimum two-night stay, through American Express Travel when you pay with your Platinum Card®.
  • $240 Digital Entertainment Credit: Get up to $20 back each month on eligible purchases made with your Platinum Card® on one or more of the following: Audible, Disney+, The Disney Bundle, ESPN+, Hulu, Peacock, SiriusXM, and The New York Times. Enrollment required.
  • $155 Walmart+ Credit: Cover the cost of a $12.95 monthly Walmart+ membership with a statement credit after you pay for Walmart+ each month with your Platinum Card. Cost includes $12.95 plus applicable local sales tax. Plus Ups are excluded.
  • American Express has expanded The Centurion® Network to include 40+ Centurion Lounge and Studio locations worldwide. There are even more places your Platinum Card® can get you complimentary entry and exclusive perks.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit: Get up to $200 in statement credits per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one select qualifying airline.
  • $200 Uber Cash: Enjoy Uber VIP status and up to $200 in Uber savings on rides or eats orders in the US annually. Uber Cash and Uber VIP status is available to Basic Card Member only.
  • Get up to $300 back per calendar year on the Equinox+ digital fitness app, or eligible Equinox club memberships when you pay with your Platinum Card. Enrollment required. Learn more.
  • Breeze through security with CLEAR® lanes available at 100+ airports, stadiums, and entertainment venues and get up to $189 back per calendar year on your membership when you use your Card. Learn more.
  • $695 annual fee.
  • Terms Apply.
  • See Rates & Fees