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In a recent video message sent to all employees, United Airlines CEO, Scott Kirby announced that United is now the world’s largest airline. The debate as to which airline is the biggest has been going on for years with different carriers choosing to use different metrics to prove dominance.
In the case of United, it’s using available seat miles (ASM). This measures how many seat miles can be purchased. Seat miles are calculated by multiplying the number of miles that an airplane flies by the number of seats available on a flight.
Kirby highlighted that United had a turning point in February 2020 that made this possible. He said:
Our modern history really begins on February 29th, 2020, when COVID first shows up in Northern Italy. And we were the only airline, and really amongst the only people to realize quickly how serious the COVID crisis was likely to become. And because of that, we were able to take steps quickly and ahead of everyone else to not only survive COVID but also importantly to prepare for the future. And because we were clear-sighted about it we always believed the travel demand would fully recover and everyone out flying today can see that, in fact, has happened.”
While other airlines cut routes and shrank during the pandemic, United invested and experimented. This was helped by government assistance and some good moves by United around its route planning. The carrier pivoted to serve many leisure destinations in Europe and now some new ones in Asia and the South Pacific. United claims to be the US’ flag carrier because it serves more international destinations than its competitors. While the markets served is undeniable, the other claims it is making can be argued.
Kirby has also argued in the past that United is the best airline. This is completely subjective. Personally, I find its service and soft product (especially food) is lacking and needs a lot of improvement to be considered anywhere near the best.
Anthony’s Take: United has done a great job growing its route network and is serving a ton of destinations, but the metric it’s using to claim its dominance is an odd one because the carrier flies less flights than its competitors and less seats as well. It flies bigger planes further (as noted in its international expansion) and uses that to justify its claim.
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