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United CEO Claims the Airline Is the Biggest in the World, but by What Metrics?

Scott Kirby, CEO at United, claims the airline became the world's largest by available seat miles

by Rachel Dube

May 2, 2023

Photo: Scott Kirby, United Airlines CEO. Photo: Courtesy of United Airlines

According to United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, the airline has officially become the largest airline in the world, surpassing both American Airlines and Delta with the most available seat miles. 

In a company-wide memo, he said: “You often hear me talk about us becoming the biggest and best airline in the history of aviation. Today, we’ve reached an important milestone on our journey. We are officially the largest airline in the world, surpassing both American and Delta by available seat miles, and it’s the result of your hard work and continued focus on doing the right thing.” 

Interestingly, however, Kirby’s statement can be contradicted by availability versus actual seats sold.

The metric of available seat miles can be calculated by multiplying the number of miles on any given route by the number of seats that are available for sale. For instance, if a flight from Miami to Orlando—separated by a distance of 200 miles—is flown once a day on a plane equipped with 100 seats, the available seat miles on this route is 20,000.

According to Gary Leff, aviation analyst and publisher of View from the Wing, “United does offer the most seat miles but they have fewer flights than American and Delta, and fly fewer seats than American, Delta, or Southwest.” Leff adds that what United claims “is they fly bigger planes farther than competitors. But they aren’t flying more planes, operating more flights, or carrying more passengers than competitors.”

In terms of fleet size, United is not the largest in the world. In fact, with its current 893 active planes, it is the third largest behind American Airlines (937) and Delta (945). In the future, however, United is on-track to becoming the world’s number-one.

Biggest Fleet: In the Works

In December, United placed a historic order for 100 Boeing 787 Dreamliners, with the option to buy 100 more down the line.

The blockbuster order for 200 new planes from Boeing, made it the largest single purchase of widebody jets by a U.S. carrier in history.  The landmark order is part of the carrier’s ambitious plans to become a global leader in the aviation industry, called ‘United Next’.

Boeing is expected to deliver 100 widebody planes to the airline between 2024 and 2032. United will also have the possibility to choose from the three Dreamliner variants – the 787-8, 9, or 10 models – giving them the flexibility to pick and choose which aircraft will be suitable for different routes. 

In the memo, Kirby briefly mentioned some of the new features of the aircraft order saying, “We’ve placed historic aircraft orders, adding new planes with screens in every seat, Bluetooth connectivity with enough room for everyone’s carry-on.” 

Photo: Courtesy of Boeing Commercial Airplanes

United also expanded its international network to include new flights to destinations worldwide. Most recently, the airline became the largest carrier to fly between the U.S. and the South Pacific. 

During the last year, United invested in sustainable aviation fuel production opened a pilot academy and increased its earnings in the first quarter of 2023. United also hired 15,000 people last year and aims to hire another 15,000 this year, creating more job opportunities in the U.S. market. 

Sustainable Fuel Practices 

This year, the airline also put a 5 million dollar investment in Viridos, an algae-based fuel producer and one of the many sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) labs. Only time will tell if the investment is the right call, as the airline is in a race to achieve net-zero carbon emissions 

The company has come up with a bioengineered microalgae that will help cut the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) associated with air travel. Currently, the GHG associated with air travel account for ten percent of the U.S. GHG—and it’s expected to triple by 2050 without any solutions in place.

South Pacific Expansion 

Most recently, United announced its largest South Pacific expansion, which includes new nonstop routes between its San Francisco (SFO) hub and Christchurch (CHC), New Zealand, and its Los Angeles (LAX) hub and Brisbane, Australia (BNE) and Auckland, New Zealand (AKL). 

The airline also announced an expansion of its existing service to Brisbane and Sydney from San Francisco and mentioned that it would increase the airline’s flights to the region to 66 per week.

Passengers who fly the routes are eligible to connect to more than 50 destinations within the region due to partnerships with Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia. 

In addition, thanks to a new codesharing partnership with Emirates, United customers will also have access to over 100 destinations across the Middle East, Asia, and Africa through Emirates and its sister airline, flydubai, global network.