Europe’s leading airlines and country markets in 2023 and their post-pandemic performances revealed


With 2023 almost done and dusted, it seems a good time to analyse how European air travel has evolved since 2019. With this year (arguably) the first normal year for travel post-pandemic, how have Europe’s biggest airlines and country markets performed compared with four years ago? Overall, according to our analysis of Cirium schedules data, seat capacity is still down 6.6% across all European airports, with flights still down a significantly higher 12%. This underlines that the average number of seats per flight has increased by 6% from 160 to 170 since 2019. The average sector length has also increased by just over 1% from 1,806 kilometres to 1,827 kilometres.

Low-cost carriers on the rise

A look at the top 15 low-cost carriers (which also includes leisure airlines) in Europe this year reveals that nine of them have increased capacity compared with 2019. Of these, seven have increased the number of seats offered by well over 20%. Back in 2019, Ryanair was around 42% bigger than easyJet in terms of available seats. Now, the Irish ULCC is almost twice as big as its nearest low-cost rival. However, easyJet is still 50% bigger than Wizz Air, though the Central European focussed carrier has gained significantly. It is worth remembering though, that Ryanair is still bigger than easyJet and Wizz Air combined.

Top 15 ULCC leisure airlines in Europe 2023

Transavia’s impressive growth has been driven entirely by its French division, as the carrier has grown its presence significantly at Paris Orly where it is now the leading carrier, offering twice as many seats as Air France. Conversely, Lufthansa’s in-house LCC, Eurowings, is still 25% smaller than it was pre-pandemic. However, SunExpress, a joint venture between Lufthansa and Turkish Airlines, has seen capacity grow by almost 50% and now has a fleet of over 50 aircraft. Another entity, SunExpress Deutschland was disbanded during 2020.

Turkish Airlines asserts dominance among flag-carriers

Just three of Europe’s top 15 flag-carriers have fully recovered their pre-pandemic seat capacity. That includes market leader Turkish Airlines, which has increased its capacity by 11%, partly thanks to the capacity available at the airline’s home hub in Istanbul where the new airport opened in 2019. Pre-pandemic Lufthansa was slightly bigger than Turkish Airlines. However, the Turkish carrier is now 35% bigger in terms of annual seat capacity.

Top 15 flag carriers airlines in Europe in 2023

Prague International Airport

Six of the top 15 flag-carriers are still reporting seat capacity more than 20% below their 2019 figure. Apart from Turkish Airlines, only Iberia and Aegean/Olympic have seen capacity growth. The fact that Türkiye, Spain and Greece are all popular leisure destinations in and around the Mediterranean may not be a coincidence.

UK still leads but Spain gaining

The United Kingdom is still the leading European country for air travel in terms of available seats in 2023, although its lead over Spain has been cut during the last four years. These two countries are now well ahead of third ranked Germany which is now in a battle with Türkiye and Italy for that position. Only seven of the top 20 European country markets has fully recovered capacity, with Greece and Portugal the only ones to see double-digit growth. Finland (-30%), Sweden (-25%) and Germany (-24%) are still a long way from getting back to pre-pandemic levels of capacity.

Top 20 European countries for airline seats

Among smaller country markets there is one clear winner; Albania. Seat capacity in the country has more than doubled, primarily thanks to Wizz Air’s phenomenal growth at Tirana. With Ryanair now also serving the Albanian capital, the country’s air traffic growth seems set to continue for a while yet.

Other country markets with growth of over 20% versus 2019 include Bosnia & Herzegovina (+26%), North Macedonia (+24%) and Serbia (+24%). At the other end of the spectrum seat capacity in the Czech Republic is still down 22% and in Slovenia it is still down 38%. Moldova’s seat capacity is down 40% while Belarus is down 46%. Sadly, commercial air travel involving airports in Ukraine is currently non-existent.

Birmingham Airport