Traffic Data Shows How Southwest Overtook U.S. Rivals

 - August 13, 2020, 9:54 AM
Spire Aviation tracked weekly airline flight totals for Southwest (blue), American (red), Delta (yellow), and United (green) from the beginning of January to the end of July. (Chart: Spire Aviation)

This story is part of AIN's continuing coverage of the impact of the coronavirus on aviation.


By now, there’s little doubt that the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic has turned the air transport industry upside down in ways that even the most insightful forecasters could not have foreseen at the start of 2020. In different parts of the world, airlines have struggled to maintain a commercially viable level of scheduled service in the face of shifting, and in some regards conflicting, government travel restrictions.

Spire Aviation has been using data collected from a combination of satellites and ground-based receivers to track the outcome of this uncertainty and it’s yielded some surprising results. For instance, data released to AIN shows that between January and the end of July, Southwest Airlines consistently outpaced rivals United Airlines, American Airlines, and Delta Air Lines in terms of weekly flights (both international and domestic). American and Delta were neck-and-neck in the number two spot, while United tracked low in fourth place.

For the whole period, Spire’s data shows Southwest with just over 625,000 flights. American totaled just under 507,000, while Delta was just over 456,000 and United a little above 294,000.

At some points during the early stages of the pandemic, Southwest ranked as the largest airline in the world based on scheduled seats on offer, overtaking its U.S. rivals with their extensive international networks. In May, the low-cost carrier was pushed down to the number two slot by China Eastern Airlines as domestic traffic started recovering in China.

The high point for these U.S. carriers over the first seven months of 2020 was in week 11, ending on March 15, which was just before the U.S. began its somewhat inconsistent Covid lockdown. In that week, Southwest recorded just over 29,600 flights, while American and Delta each had just over 26,700, and United stood at just over 18,700.

The low point was in week 17 (ending April 26), by which time several individual U.S. states had begun to ease lockdown restrictions. At that point, Southwest recorded almost 9,900 flights, while American was just over 7,000, Delta at almost 5,500 and United at just over 2,500.

By the end of week 31 (ending on August 2), Southwest was still in front with just over 21,000 flights. American was closest to it with just over 17,300 flights, while Delta had almost 13,500 and United just over 7,400.

Spire Aviation provides air traffic data powered by Spire’s nanosatellite constellation. The company is part of Spire Global, which is a space-to-cloud analytics group based in San Francisco.