China Eastern Airlines Beats Southwest As World’s Largest Carrier

For the first time in history, a Chinese airline is the largest in the world by seat availability. China Eastern has unseated Southwest Airlines as the biggest in the world, according to analysis from aviation consultancy OAG, as Asia begins to add flights and Southwest cuts a million seats from its schedule.

China Eastern Boeing 777
China Eastern Airlines has become the world’s largest carrier by seats this week. Photo: Getty Images

China Eastern takes the top spot

For the first time in history, China Eastern has become the world’s largest carrier by seats on offer. Usually, the airline is somewhere towards the bottom of the top 10 largest airlines by passengers carried, behind the US big three and European carriers such as Ryanair and Lufthansa. However, due to the massive capacity cuts being seen around the world, the Shanghai-based airline is now the world’s biggest.

China Eastern
It’s an unusual position for China Eastern to occupy. Photo: Tom Boon – Simple Flying

John Grant, Partner at MIDAS Aviation and senior aviation analyst at OAG, shared the details in his blog post yesterday, saying that,

“Domestic capacity continues to account for over 82% of all seats scheduled for operation this week. Southwest Airlines dropping over one million seats in the last week moves the airline into second position in terms of global rankings; China Eastern now occupying first place.”

Overall, the number of seats worldwide dropped by more than 80 million compared to the same time last year. Just 26.6 million seats were on offer over the previous week, compared to 109 million during the same week in 2019.

Southwest Airlines
Southwest cut a million seats in the past week. Photo: Southwest Airlines

Grant describes these ‘dramatic cuts’ as outstripping the small shoots of optimism seen in the aviation industry right now. While OAG analysis reveals that 270 airlines have added capacity back into the market, increasing seats by 3.9 million, a further 303 airlines reduced capacity by 5.6 million at the same time.

The marked drop of more than a million seats from Southwest has pushed the airline down the league tables. Under normal circumstances, Southwest is the third-largest carrier by passengers moved, behind Delta and American Airlines. However, the low-cost giant snagged the top spot in mid-April after American Airlines dramatically cut capacity.

Forward scheduled capacity ‘not going to happen’

Current capacity filings show airlines adding some 90 million seats by the 25th of May. This would see a 70% increase in available seats in under three weeks. However, Grant says, “That is not going to happen.”

Airlines are having a tough time planning for the resumption of services, with forward capacity plans being adjusted almost daily. With no clear pathway out of the crisis, it’s virtually impossible to predict when travel capacity will resume.

China Eastern Wuhan Coronavirus
The relaxation of travel restrictions in China has spurred more flights. Photo: Getty Images

There are some shoots of hope, however. North East Asia remains the world’s largest regional market, with capacity increased 6% over the last week. Easing of travel restrictions in China is largely behind the addition of 900,000 seats in the past week, spurred by Monday’s national holiday and some very cheap fares.

Outside of China, countries including Spain, France, Oman, Colombia and Vietnam have all seen an increase in weekly capacity in recent days. As Grant concluded, however, it’s going to be a long road to get back to the 100 million-plus weekly seats we’d usually be seeing at this time of the year.

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