As of this writing, there are 5,193 commercial airplanes in the air in the world. Despite the rise of internet-based communication, businesses continue to find it profitable to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars shuttling people around for face-to-face meetings–not to mention the families and other travelers journeying for other reasons. To meet this massive demand for high-speed global travel, airlines have assembled vast fleets of aircraft. It’s worth appreciating this for a moment: multiple corporations employ metal tubes capable of burning decayed organic matter at high temperatures in a controlled fashion that propels the tubes forward into the sky and across the globe. A miracle!
Just who are these corporations, and how large are there fleets? Due to the immense cost involved in making air travel possible and safe, the prices per plane are large. Assembling a fleet will cost in the billions of dollars–no wonder airlines are constantly declaring bankruptcy. The top ten largest airplane fleets will take us around the world, and we begin in a country where all numbers are jumbo: China.
Headquartered in Shanghai, don’t let the name fool you: China Eastern will fly you anywhere, and they’ve got the planes to do it. They count hundreds of destinations for their 349 planes. And their planes come with perks: China Eastern is a member of the SkyTeam, the Delta-headed global alliance of airlines that share flights and frequent flier miles. Last year, this behemoth flew 73 million passengers–or roughly 1/15 the population of China.
Somewhat surprisingly given the relatively small population of Canada, our neighbors to the north top at least one Chinese airline! They deserve some maple syrup for their efforts. Headquartered in Montreal but with its largest hub in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, Air Canada is the flag carrier airline for the nation. A member of the United-led Star Alliance, Air Canada flies a number of US-based routes out of Toronto, Vancouver, and other major Canadian cities. Overall, the airline counts 178 destinations for its aircraft. Given the rules restricting foreign carriers from serving direct flights within a country, Air Canada enjoys something of a monopoly position within Canada–ensuring that it puts it pile of planes to good use for some time to come.
The French flag carrier, based out of Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, is a founding member of SkyTeam and a subsidiary of the Air France/KLM group, formed from the merger of Air France with the Dutch flag carrier KLM. Befitting the fifth-largest national economy, the 381-plane fleet is quite sizeable. With flights to over 90 countries and over 30 local destinations, the airline is no shrimp. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of its fleet is composed of Airbus planes–the French airline has purchased fewer airplanes than average from Boeing and far more from the France-based producer Airbus. French Socialism, perhaps, but the size of the fleet speaks for itself.
Jumping one up the GDP tables, the German flag carrier Lufthansa has a somewhat larger country and a somewhat larger airline. Once state-owned, it was privatized in 1994 shortly after German reunification. The airline’s main hub, Frankfurt, is one of Europe’s largest airports, and the company is based in the industrial Rhineland, in Cologne. With 197 international destinations on top of 18 domestic terminals, the airline and its 401 planes are major players. Perhaps its most newsworthy facet at the moment is a recent promotion that encouraged Swedish people to change their name to Klaus-Heidi and somehow managed to get 42 Swedes to do so in exchange for a chance to win a year of free rent in Berlin, along with a few free flights. With 401 operating aircraft, they must have figured they could spare a few seats to some adventuresome Swedes!
Unsurprisingly, the world’s largest country shows up again on the list of the world’s largest airline fleets. China Southern is based in Guangzhou in Guangdong Province–a province the size of Wisconsin with a population over 100 million. The airline is China’s biggest by fleet size and by passengers, and ranks the fourth largest by domestic passengers worldwide. It features a main hub in Beijing alongside its Guangzhou home base, and flies to a total of 193 destinations with hundreds more options from its SkyTeam partners.
Coming in at a top five position, FedEx is the only operator on this list that doesn’t fly passengers–or at least not human passengers. Instead, it flies freight: lots of freight. Based out of Memphis and founded as Federal Express, FedEx jumped into being as an overnight freight delivery service entirely reliant on aircraft–unlike legacy competitors like UPS, which made the transition to air only slowly. Today, it operates one of the largest aircraft fleets in the world. One would-be competitor, the United States Postal Service, doesn’t own any of its own aircraft, leaving FedEx the untouched freight fleet champion. Among its many hubs is one surprise: Anchorage, Alaska. Instead of delivering there, however, Anchorage is just a way-point for FedEx’s continual flights between China and other Asian countries and the US mainland. Not a bad showing considering they have no passengers!
Based out of Dallas, this one-time regional carrier got its start flying only within Texas–letting it avoid FAA monopoly regulations and operate a low-cost strategy. Following deregulation, Southwest exploded and now flies more passengers than any other US airline. With 683 aircraft to manage, one way that Southwest stays cheap is by operating nothing except Boeing 737 planes–thus ensuring that its mechanics know how to fix every plane by heart, and that its parts are essentially interchangeable. With each of its planes flying, on average, 6 flights per day, the fleet is large and overworked–the better to keep costs down. With 683 aircraft and a recent purchase of carrier AirTran, Southwest’s future is looking up.
A massive fleet for a massive airline. Chicago-based (actually Willis Tower-based: a massive tower for a massive airline) airline United operates one of the largest fleets in the world, befitting its anchor position in the Star Alliance. With hundreds of destinations, United actually offers 10 different hubs–critical to its success, this dense network captures the majority of Americans in its various hubs, enabling a wide array of popular destinations in major cities including Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington, Houston, Newark, Denver, San Francisco, Cleveland, and Tokyo. Included in its fleet are 8 Boeing 787-8 Dreamliners, the ultimate next-generation aircraft featuring improved range and fuel efficiency (and battery fires). This 1,264-strong fleet is good enough for third-place worldwide.
Another regional carrier that has flown to prominence, Delta takes its name from its original home: based in tiny Monroe, Louisiana, the various destinations it flew to were based in and around the Mississippi River Delta. Prior to its start as Delta, the airline began as a crop-dusting company to combat the boll weevil infestation; after converting to passenger service, customers (1 at a time) rode on an upturned bin where the pesticide used to go. From these meager beginnings, Delta has expanded and now operated the second-largest fleet on earth, with 5,000 daily flights based out of Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport–the busiest in the country. Delta’s largest fleet expansion followed the bankruptcy of Pan-Am Airlines in 1991, when Delta took over a selection of its aircraft assets and flight routes. After its most recent merger with Northwest, Delta briefly held the top spot on this list, but is in the process of being surpassed by the new number one, far beyond even Delta’s 1,280 aircraft.
After their just-approved merger–more accurately a takeover of bankrupt American by the better-run (and not bankrupt) US Airways, which was itself taken over by the even better run (and even less bankrupt) America West a few years earlier–the aggregate airline, still known as American, will operate a fleet of nearly fifteen hundred planes. This figure puts the airline nearly 25% ahead of their nearest competitor. The airline’s main hub, Dallas-Fort Worth, is a pre-merger monopoly for American, with the original airline operating 85% of total passenger traffic at the airport–a number that can only increase with the merger. With hundreds of destinations each, the newly created airline will be the largest in the world by many measures. The most visible, by far, will be its 1,494 aircraft crisscrossing the skies day and night.
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