Air transportation industry is about a hundred years old at this point. And that’s plenty of time for a few airlines to grow extra-large. Some of them eclipse others by a wide margin. So here are the biggest airlines in Europe (by passenger numbers).
10. SAS Group
Passengers in 2019: 22.6 million (as of September 2019)
Fleet size: 158 (SAS), 9 (Scandinavian Airlines Ireland)
SAS Group is more than the SAS you know – there’s also Scandinavian Airlines Ireland. This Ireland-based subsidiary was opened in 2017 in order to compete with lover prices of the… other Ireland-based competitors. So far, it has been dogged by labor-relations scandals.
The bigger SAS still remains the flag carrier of the Scandinavian region: Sweden, Denmark, and Norway like no other airline. It was launched in 1946 and became one of the founding members of Star Alliance merely 51 years later.
9. Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA
Passengers in 2019: 28.6 million (as of September 2019)
Fleet size: 34 (sans subsidiaries), 159 (with subsidiaries)
Norwegian has a convoluted history, even if it’s not that long. It started as a replacement for the Busy Bee regional airline which went defunct in 1993. It operated Fokker 50s – propeller planes. Through an increasingly convoluted series of events, Norwegian found itself losing markets to SAS.
That’s why it went international in 2002. Norwegian started buying new planes and even launched intercontinental routes. And now, it’s one of the biggest budget airlines in Europe and one of the biggest kids in aviation. Not bad for an airline that started out with a few planes from a manufacturer that went defunct in 1996.
8. Wizz Air
Passengers in 2019: 29.8 million (as of September 2019)
Fleet size: 110 (Wizz Air), 10 (Wizz Air UK)
Wizz Air’s largest hub is in Budapest – it serves 60 destinations. However, it’s not the Hungarian flag carrier. In fact, the lead investor is a US equity firm and the holding company is headquartered in one of the Channel Islands.
Starting out with a single route connecting Katowice to London Gatwick, Wizz Air found its own niche well enough. During its lifetime, it had launched three subsidiaries. The Bulgarian and Ukrainian ones have been folded into the company structure. Wizz Air UK, however, seems to be doing OK.
Passengers in 2019: 41 million (as of July 2019)
Fleet size: 332
EasyJet started out as a paper airline, operating two wet-leased (that is, they came with crew, maintenance and insurance taken care of by the lessor) Boeing 737-200. That was in 1995; easyJet purchased its first plane in 1996. It then immediately went international, competing with British Airways and KLM.
EasyJet has gobbled up several other airlines during its existence. One of those airlines was turned into the Swiss subsidiary easyJet Switzerland. On the other hand, easyJet Europe (based in Vienna).
6. Aeroflot Group
Passengers in 2019: 46,7 million (as of September 2019)
Fleet size: 249
Aeroflot dates back to 1923. In the Soviet days, it used to be the biggest airline in the world. Today, it’s “merely” the biggest airline in the Russian Federation and the country’s flag carrier.
State-owned, it has taken part in a few mergers and reorganizations of the Russian airlines. Today, Aeroflot has Aurora, Pobeda and Rossiya Airlines as subsidiaries. It reaches 146 destinations world-wide and operates mostly out of its hub in the Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport.
5. Turkish Airlines
Passengers in 2019: 56,4 million (as of September 2019)
Fleet size: 346
Turkish Airlines was established in 1933. In August 2019, it was the airline serving the most destinations in the world. Turkish Airlines flies to 126 countries (this is also a world-record) and serves 315 destinations.
The main hub (and HQ) is located at the Istanbul Ataturk Airport. The many subsidiaries are involved not only in passenger transportation but also in cargo and maintenance.
4. Air France-KLM
Passengers in 2019: 56,4 million (as of September 2019)
Fleet size: 224 (Air France), 121 (KLM, excluding subsidiaries)
Air France-KLM is the holding company uniting Air France and KLM. For the unaware, this merger happened way back in 2003. The airlines still operate as their own brands and maintain their own hugs.
Air France appeared in 1933 following a merger of several French aviation businesses. It still maintains several of its own subsidiaries. Meanwhile, Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij N.V – KLM – is both the Dutch flag carrier and the oldest airline to still operate under its own name.
3. International Airlines Group
Passengers in 2019: 90 million (as of September 2019)
Fleet size: 573 (total), 278 (British Airways), 90 (Iberia)
A much more recent merger – that’s 2011 – saw British Airways and Iberia become 100% subsidiaries of International Airline Group. Said grouping was later reinforced with the inclusion of Aer Lingus, AirEuropa, Anisec Luftfahrt, IAG Cargo, LEVEL, Vueling, and Avios Group.
Iberia had profitability issues after the merger, but IAG soldiered on. It now seems to be in the clear. Altogether, the group can muster a fleet of 573 planes – nearly half of them being Airbus A320s.
2. Deutsche Lufthansa
Passengers in 2019: 111 million (as of September 2019)
Fleet size: 299 (sans subsidiaries)
Unlike the two previous companies, Lufthansa is doing fine without merging with anyone. It was formed in Berlin in 1926 and now owns airlines like Austrian Airlines, Swiss International Air Lines, Brussels Airlines, Eurowings, and Germanwings as subsidiaries.
Lufthansa’s HQ is in Cologne. Lufthansa Aviation Center, the main hub and base, is at Frankfurt Airport, while the secondary hub and the Flight Operations Centre are at Munich Airport.
Passengers in 2019: 116 million (as of September 2019)
Fleet size: 412 (sans subsidiaries)
Ryanair started out in 1984 and experienced the greatest growth spurt after the European aviation market was deregulated in 1997. Serving “only” 38 countries, Ryanair still carries more international passengers per year than any other airline.
Ryanair has sister companies in Ryanair UK, Ryanair Sun, Malta Air and Lauda. It recently faced criticism for major flight cancellations in September and October 2017. The troubles didn’t end there and the company was plagued by strikes throughout 2018.
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