The 10 most profitable airlines of the globe

23 June 2017

American Airlines have become the world’s most profitable airline according to new figures between 2012 and 2016. Delta Airline, remain the most steadily profitable airline meanwhile, as the top earner between the longer period of 2007 and 2016. Scandal-hit United Airlines maintained third place in both time-frames, while British and Irish carriers also continued to fly high.

The global airline industry has long been criticized for its inability to earn sufficient returns. But in 2016, for the second consecutive year, the industry generated approximately $17 billion in economic profit (EP), down from the 2015 record of roughly $25 billion. American and Delta were meanwhile found to be the world’s most profitable airlines, according to an analysis from L.E.K. Consulting.

The professional services firm defined economic profit (EP) as the surplus after-tax operating income that companies generate, after charging for the capital they employ. Analysing figures from some 106 reporting airlines, L.E.K found that approximately over half were EP-positive in 2016, with 54 meeting the criteria to record profit in these terms.

Part of this profitability stems from the fact commercial airlines have added significantly to their seat-count per aeroplane in recent years, with an almost 50% increase in +100 seat flights between 2005 and 2015.

Researchers however also cited low oil prices as a significant contributor to growth in EP in 2016, though in the future oil prices are forecast to climb in 2017, suggesting that future profitability in the industry may well fall, especially as global aviation firms plan to add over 10000 planes to their collective fleets by 2027, which will inevitable drive up demand, and prices, for fuel further.

U.S. carriers continue to be the most lucrative airlines in the world, with all major U.S. carriers generating significant positive EP in 2016 and over the past five years. The four largest U.S. airlines retained their distinction not only as the top EP earners for the past five years, but also as the four largest market-cap airlines in the world, demonstrating that the financial markets are recognizing the value these airlines are creating.

Top 10 economic profit generators, by absolute dollars (2012-2016)

Market Turbulence

American Airlines remain the world’s largest carrier, with a fleet sized at 1,556 aircraft in 2016 ultimately providing the company with a platform for more rapid profitability between 2012 and 2016. The company registered an EP of $14,108 million in that time, compared to nearest competitor Delta, who brought home $12,107 million in the same period. However, with the world’s second largest fleet of 1,330 planes, Delta  were measured as the most profitable airline over a longer period, sustaining its number 1 ranking between 2007 and 2016, in spite of an economic crisis occurring during that period.

In the meantime, researchers found that United Airlines maintained a steady third place in both time frames, with their 1,229 aircraft bringing in an economic profit of $10,700 million from 2012-16. The US company saw stock value plummet 1.1% in early 2017 however, wiping out $255 million of the airline's market value, following police being filmed dragging a passenger from an overbooked flight. United will undoubtedly be keen to put the episode behind them in order to maintain their consistent profitability. Completing a completely American top four, both in terms of fleet-size and profitability, Southwest Airlines’ 720 planes meanwhile recorded EP of $5,407 million.

Anglo-Spanish outfit International Airlines Group, which according to the most recent figures the group had 464 aircraft with 150 aircraft on order, ranked fifth in profitability, raking in $4,408 million between 2012-16. The London-headquartered group joined in the top ten by Europe’s largest low cost carrier Ryanair, which boasts 349 aircraft. Placing sixth, with a 2012-16 EP of $3,429 million, Ryanair operated on a similar model to that of Southwest Airlines, the Irish airline only operating Boeing 737 aircraft. EasyJet, which operates out of London-Luton airport, meanwhile rounds off the top ten, posting an EP of $2,100 million over that same period.

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BDO administrates Flybmi amid aviation industry turbulence

21 February 2019

Around 400 jobs in the UK, Germany, Sweden and Belgium have been lost following the collapse of commercial airliner Flybmi. The administration, which will be overseen by professionals from BDO, constitutes the third failure of a commercial carrier since the start of 2019, with the industry having suffered from sustained turbulence for the duration of last year.

The initial 4 a.m. announcement informing customers that Britain’s longest-surviving airline, Monarch, had been placed into administration meant that many passengers arrived at airports only to find their flights cancelled and holiday plans inconvenienced, while many were left with no means of returning to the UK. Beyond the immediate ramifications, however, the collapse of Monarch also drew to a close six years of steady improvement for commercial carriers across the world. 

Since the economic shock of 2011 – an echo of the 2008 financial crisis – the number of commercial airlines falling into administration across the world declined at a relatively consistent rate. According to data from – barring an anomaly of a year which saw only four airlines falter in 2014 – the number of collapses in the sector declined continuously. In 2017, the figure stood at just 10, compared to a huge 46 in 2011, and a  staggering 61 in 2008.

Global number of airlines to have failed since 2005

Following Monarch’s precipitous fall, however, the situation once more seems to have commenced a nose-dive in the following year. 15 airlines failed in 2018, and less than two months into 2019, another three have followed suit. That puts 2019 on pace to reach 24 airline collapses. 

The latest of these firms to spiral into administration is Flybmi, an East Midlands-based airline which until February operated 17 regional jet aircraft on routes to 25 European cities. The company operated more than 600 flights a week from regional airports including Bristol, Newcastle, Aberdeen and the East Midlands.

News of the firm’s demise emerged as it cancelled hundreds of flights at short notice over the space of a single weekend, leaving many passengers stranded and out of pocket. Flybmi advised customers to seek refunds from credit and debit card companies, or to rebook with other airlines, before eventually appointing administrators from professional services firm BDO.

The appointment, initially reported by UK paper The Telegraph, came following a weekend of chaos, with passengers and staff desperate for information, but without an administrator to turn to, as authorities had remained tight-lipped on the matter. The process was reportedly delayed until the following Monday by a Scottish law which prevents insolvency specialists being appointed over the weekend.

Turbulence ahead

Commenting on the task at hand, BDO Business Restructuring Partner and joint administrator Tony Nygate said, “As joint administrators, we are taking all necessary steps to ensure customers, staff and suppliers are supported through the administration process. Our job is to maximise recoveries and minimise distress for all parties, acting as smoothly and swiftly as possible.”

Administrators from the firm now face questions over what preparations were in place prior to the carrier’s collapse, including actions that could have softened the blow for thousands of stranded passengers. Meanwhile, some 376 employees in the UK, Germany, Sweden and Belgium have been made redundant, with the remainder staying to assist with the administration. Unions have since demanded urgent talks with Flybmi’s administrators, with Unite, which represents about 40 of the airline’s 376 staff, calling for a buyer to be found in order to ensure wages are paid in full.

Unite Regional Secretary Paresh Patel told the press, “Unite is shocked and saddened by the news that Flybmi has gone into administration…  This is a terrible blow for the airline’s workforce and their families, as well as the East Midlands economy. We will be giving maximum support to our members who work for the airline across the UK at this very difficult time for them.”

The Brexit process seems to have played a key role in the downfall of Flybmi. Airlines are required by law to purchase carbon credits to offset their carbon emissions – something which until recently was subsidised through a free allocation of credits by European authorities. Now, however, Brussels has excluded UK firms from their allocation of credits ahead of the UK’s divorce from the EU in March, and it is anticipated that this may  well lead to more casualties in both the airline industry, and the broader British economy.

Glen Flannery, a Partner at law firm CMS, told The Telegraph, “The European Commission has started to implement its No Deal Brexit contingency plans. With effect from January 1st, it has temporarily suspended the UK’s free allocation of carbon allowances, auctioning, and the exchange of international credits. This has created a huge amount of uncertainty for UK participants, the full effects of which have yet to play out.”