Recently, several experiments reported a muon deficit in air shower simulations with respect to the data. This problem can be studied using an estimator that quantifies the relative muon content of the data with respect to those of proton and iron Monte Carlo air shower simulations. We analyze two estimators. The first one, based on the logarithm of the mean of the muon content, is built from experimental considerations. It is ideal for comparing results from different experiments as it is independent of the detector resolution. The second estimator is based on the mean of the logarithm of the muon content, which implies that it depends on shower-to-shower fluctuations. It is linked to the mean-logarithmic mass $\left \langle \ln A \right \rangle$ through the Heitler-Matthews model. We study the properties of the estimators and their biases considering the knowns and unknowns of typical experiments.
Furthermore, we study these effects in measurements of the muon density at 1000 m from the shower axis obtained by the Akeno Giant Air Shower Array (AGASA). Finally, we report the estimates of the relative muon content of the AGASA data, which support a muon deficit in simulations. These estimates constitute valuable additional information of the muon content of air showers at the highest energies.