How Southwest Became The World’s Largest Carrier (For A Week)

The US airlines have had a tough half year. Early spring saw demand plummet, and with it scheduled services. While capacity has begun to ramp back up, the variation between airlines is interesting to see. We share some data from Spire Aviation to take a look at the dynamics of aviation in the US during the pandemic.

Southwest Airlines, April Load Factor, Industry Recovery
Southwest Airlines became the world’s largest carrier for a little while. Photo: Southwest Airlines

Interesting dynamics

The United States is home to some of the biggest airlines on the planet, all of whom have been significantly impacted by the COVID pandemic. While airlines around the world have struggled to keep services running, the US CARES Act has ensured some level of service has been maintained.

However, the nature of the pandemic has caused a marked drop in demand. As such, airlines spent most of April slashing services to avoid flying ghost flights. Come June, and seats began to be added back into the network as airlines embraced the new normal and worked to get passengers back in the sky.

All this produced some interesting dynamics in the US aviation industry, including a new leader for the biggest airline in the world, albeit temporarily. Spire Global, a data and analytics company that collects data from space to solve problems on Earth, has shared with us some insight into exactly what this looked like.

How Southwest Became The World’s Largest Carrier (For A Week)
Exciting dynamics in the US market. Image: Spire Aviation

A new number one airline

Pre pandemic, Southwest Airlines was up there as one of the most prolific airlines in the US. In week 11 of 2020, commencing March 9th, it offered more seats than any other US airline. As the chart shows, flights per week hit a high of almost 30,000 before the impact of COVID caused airline activity to plummet.

Southwest flights during Week 11: Spire Aviation

Two weeks later, the Spire Aviation data shows us just how capacity in the US had plummeted. All four big US carriers had begun to cut services, although the reduction was undoubtedly more prominent among the big three than with Southwest.

Week 17, which began on April 20th, saw the market hit rock bottom. United Airlines was operating barely 2,500 flights per week, while American and Delta were hovering around 7,000. Despite the challenges, Southwest never dropped below 9,900 flights per week.

Southwest flights during Week 17: Spire Aviation

By the middle of April, Southwest had become the largest airline in the world. Its weekly seat supply was some three million seats, putting it ahead not only of its compatriots in the US but also of the behemoth Chinese airlines, whose grounding had started much earlier. It didn’t hold that crown for long; before a fortnight was up, deep cuts to capacity of more than a million seats pushed it back down the league tables.

Ramping back up

Although late April to mid-May brought with it the lowest flights in the US for more than a decade, it wasn’t long before activity began to ramp up again. As restrictions in US states began to ease, the four major airlines began to put capacity back into their networks.

Southwest’s impressive ramp up saw it adding back in capacity much faster than other airlines. By the start of week 24 (June 8th), it had surpassed 15,000 flights, while the other three were still struggling to make it over 10,000.

Southwest flights during Week 26: Spire Aviation

Southwest kept on adding capacity, breaching 20,000 flights per week by the end of June. Around that time, American Airlines began really throwing capacity into the network, too, while Delta and United added flights back a little more conservatively.

By August, all four airlines had replaced a great deal of capacity, although still nowhere near their pre-pandemic levels. United had put back around 200% from its low point, flying just over 7,400 operations in the first week of the month. Delta had almost 13,500 and American some 17,300, but by far the largest operator remained Southwest. It flew more than 21,000 flights in early August, maintaining its lead in the US market ahead of its competitors.

Are you impressed by Southwest’s rapid ramp-up of services? Let us know what you think in the comments.

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