China Southern Regains Top Spot As World’s Largest Airline

China Southern Airlines has taken its place as the world’s largest airline, climbing above U.S carriers Delta and American Airlines. With the domestic aviation market remaining relatively unfazed in China, the airline has capitalized on the global downturn in aviation to claim the top spot.

China Southern Airlines now reigns as the largest airline in the world. Photo: Andrew Thomas via Wikimedia Commons.

While other major airlines worldwide have drastically reduced their operating capacity, China Southern has almost managed to return to its pre-COVID levels. Whether or not the airline will stay on top remains to be seen, as just last week Delta Air Lines celebrated becoming the world’s largest before being overtaken.

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily aviation news digest.

China Southern becomes the world’s largest airline

According to OAG, China Southern had a scheduled capacity of 2,580,529 this 26 October, overtaking American Airlines and Delta. Interestingly, this represents just a 10% drop on its pre-COVID capacity, which stood at 2,877,703 on 20 January. Other Chinese airlines, including China Eastern Airlines and Air China have also managed to get close to pre-COVID levels.

China Southern Regains Top Spot As World’s Largest Airline
China Southern has almost returned to its capacity before the coronavirus crisis. Photo: Airbus

This is in stark contrast to other aviation heavyweights, which have suffered up to a 50% drop in capacity since January 2020.  American Airlines had over 4.8 million capacity in January, which has now been slashed to 2.4 million. Grim figures at other major airlines in North America and Europe reveal a similar story.

How did China Southern manage it?

Along with key strategic decisions paying off, many external factors aligned to take China Southern Airlines to the top. The airline has long pursued ambitions to become the world’s largest airline. China Southern’s Senior Vice-President for International and Corporate Relations, Wu Guoxiang, outlined the airline’s aims in a South China Morning Post interview:

“In three to five years we will be the largest in the world. We need the flexibility to cooperate the way we want.”

China Southern Airlines Airbus A380-841
China’s largest carrier has always pursued becoming the world’s largest. Photo: Allen Zhao/ Wikimedia Commons

Chinese airlines initially bore the full brunt of the coronavirus pandemic, as the country was the epicenter of the outbreak. By the middle of February, up to 80% of flights were canceled as China’s aviation industry shrunk to Portugal’s size. However, by early September the Chinese market had all but recovered to pre-COVID levels while markets around the world floundered.

Will the airline stay at the top?

China Southern Airlines may keep the No.1 spot for the foreseeable future but are unlikely to hold it once U.S airlines bounce back. With capacity levels still dwindling in the North American market, China Southern may end up reigning as the world’s largest airline for at least the next couple of months.

chinese airlines croatia
The airline is unlikely to hold the top spot long-term once other airlines recover. Photo: Boeing

What will help China Southern’s numbers are initiatives like its ‘Fly Happily‘ pass. This pass offers passengers unlimited travel up until 6 January 2021, in an effort to stimulate recovery and restore public confidence in flying. However, if a strong recovery in the global aviation market materializes in the coming months, the airline will likely lose its position as the world’s largest.