A flag carrier is a transportation company, such as an airline or shipping company, that, being locally registered in a given sovereign state, enjoys preferential rights or privileges accorded by the government for international operations.
Historically, the term was used to refer to airlines owned by the government of their home country and associated with the national identity of that country.Such an airline may also be known as a national airline or a national carrier, although this can have different legal meanings in some countries. Today, it is any international airline with a strong connection to its home country or that represents its home country internationally, regardless of whether it is government-owned.
Flag carriers may also be known as such due to laws requiring aircraft or ships to display the state flag of the country of their registry.For example, under the law of the United States, a U.S. flag air carrier is any airline that holds a certificate under Section 401 of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 (i.e., any U.S.-based airline operating internationally), and any ship registered in the United States is known as a U.S. flag vessel.
The term "flag carrier" is a legacy of the time when countries established state-owned airline companies. Governments then took the lead due to the high capital costs of establishing and running airlines. However, not all such airlines were government-owned; Pan Am, TWA, Cathay Pacific, Union de Transports Aériens, Canadian Pacific Air Lines and Olympic Airlines were all privately owned. Most of these were considered to be flag carriersas they were the "main national airline" and often a sign of their country's presence abroad.
The heavily regulated aviation industry also meant aviation rights are often negotiated between governments, denying airlines the right to an open market. These Bilateral Air Transport Agreements similar to the Bermuda I and Bermuda II agreements specify rights awardable only to locally registered airlines, forcing some governments to jump-start airlines to avoid being disadvantaged in the face of foreign competition. Some countries also establish flag carriers such as Israel's El Alor Lebanon's Middle East Airlines for nationalist reasons, or to aid the country's economy, particularly in the area of tourism.
In many cases, governments would directly assist in the growth of their flag carriers typically through subsidies and other fiscal incentives. The establishment of competitors in the form of other locally registered airlines may be prohibited, or heavily regulated to avoid direct competition.Even where privately run airlines may be allowed to be established, the flag carriers may still be accorded priority, especially in the apportionment of aviation rights to local or international markets.
In the last two decades,[ when? ] however, many of these airlines have since been corporatized as a public company or a state-owned enterprise, or completely privatized. The aviation industry has also been gradually deregulated and liberalized, permitting greater freedoms of the air particularly in the United States and in the European Union with the signing of the Open Skies agreement. One of the features of such agreements is the right of a country to designate multiple airlines to serve international routes with the result that there is no single "flag carrier".
The chart below lists airlines considered to be a "flag carrier", based on current or former state ownership, or other verifiable designation as a national airline.
|Country or Region||Airline||Details of current state ownership||Details of former state ownership|
|Afghanistan||Ariana Afghan Airlines||Majority|
|Angola||TAAG Angola Airlines||Majority|
|Australia||Qantas||None||State-owned until 1992.|
|Virgin Australia||Minority state-owned by the Queensland Government through QIC|
|Austria||Austrian Airlines||None – owned by Lufthansa||State-owned until 5 December 2008.|
|Bangladesh||Biman Bangladesh Airlines||Public-limited company||State-owned until 23 July 2007.|
|Belgium||Brussels Airlines||None – owned by Lufthansa||State-owned in its original incarnation ( SN Brussels Airlines )|
|Bolivia||Boliviana de Aviación||State-owned|
|Brunei||Royal Brunei Airlines||State-owned|
|Bulgaria||Bulgaria Air||Minority State-owned (0.01%)|
|Burkina Faso||Air Burkina||State-owned|
|Cambodia||Cambodia Angkor Air||Majority (51%)|
|Canada||Air Canada||None||State-owned until 1989.|
|Cayman Islands||Cayman Airways||State-owned (100%)|
|Chad||Chadian Airlines||Majority (51%)|
|Chile||LATAM Chile||None||State-owned until September 1989.|
|China||Air China||Majority (51.7%), in which:||State-owned until 2004, now indirectly controlled through parent companies.|
|Croatia||Croatia Airlines||Majority (98%)|
|Cuba||Cubana de Aviación|
|Czech Republic||Czech Airlines||None|
|DR Congo||Congo Airways||State-owned|
|Denmark||Scandinavian Airlines||Joint venture|
|Djibouti||Air Djibouti||Joint venture|
|Equatorial Guinea||CEIBA Intercontinental|
|Eswatini||Eswatini Airlink [ citation needed ]||Joint venture|
|Faroe Islands||Atlantic Airways|
|Fiji||Fiji Airways||Majority (51%)|
|France||Air France||Minority (18% share)|
|French Polynesia||Air Tahiti Nui||Majority|
|Germany||Lufthansa||Minority (20.05%) of parent company since 2020 due to near-insolvency in cause of COVID-19 pandemic||State-owned until 1994; remaining government shares were sold in 1997.|
|Hong Kong||Cathay Pacific||Minority (6.08% by Hong Kong Government) |
Minority (16.03% by Chinese Government)
|Indonesia||Garuda Indonesia||Majority (60.536%)||State-owned until February 2011.|
|Ireland||Aer Lingus||None – owned by IAG||State-owned until September 2006.|
|Israel||El Al||Minority (~1.1%)||State-owned until June 2004.|
|Ivory Coast||Air Côte d'Ivoire||Minority (49%)|
|Jamaica||Caribbean Airlines||Minority (16%)|
|Japan||Japan Airlines||None||State-owned until 1987.|
|Kazakhstan||Air Astana||Majority (51%)|
|Kenya||Kenya Airways||Minority (29.8%)|
|Lebanon||Middle East Airlines||Majority (99%)|
|Macau||Air Macau||Minority (5%)|
|Malawi||Malawi Airlines||Majority (51%)|
|Malaysia||Malaysia Airlines||State-owned (100%) through Khazanah Nasional|
|Mexico||Aeroméxico||None||State-owned until 2007.|
|Mongolia||MIAT Mongolian Airlines||State-owned|
|Morocco||Royal Air Maroc||State-owned|
|Mozambique||LAM Mozambique Airlines||State-owned|
|Myanmar||Myanmar National Airlines||State-owned|
|New Zealand||Air New Zealand||Majority (53%)||State-owned until 1989, partially re-nationalized in 2001.|
|North Korea||Air Koryo||State-owned|
|Pakistan||Pakistan International Airlines||State-owned|
|Papua New Guinea||Air Niugini|
|Poland||LOT Polish Airlines||State-owned|
|Portugal||TAP Air Portugal||Majority (72%)|
|Republic of the Congo||Equatorial Congo Airlines||Majority (70%)[ citation needed ]|
|Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||SVG Air [ citation needed ]|
|São Tomé and Príncipe||STP Airways [ citation needed ]||None|
|Serbia||Air Serbia||Majority (51%)|
|Seychelles||Air Seychelles||State-owned (100%)|
|Solomon Islands||Solomon Airlines||State-owned (100%)|
|Singapore||Singapore Airlines||Majority (54.5% through Temasek Holdings )|
|South Africa||South African Airways||State-owned|
|South Korea||Korean Air||None||State-owned until 1969.|
|Sri Lanka||SriLankan Airlines||State-owned|
|Switzerland||Swiss International Air Lines||None – owned by Lufthansa|
|Taiwan||China Airlines||None||State-owned until 1991. 51.28% held by non-profit Civic Aviation Development Foundation.|
|Thailand||Thai Airways International||Majority (47.86%)|
|Trinidad and Tobago||Caribbean Airlines||Majority (84%)|
|Turkey||Turkish Airlines||Minority (49%)|
|Ukraine||Ukraine International Airlines|
|United Arab Emirates||Etihad Airways||State-owned by the Government of Abu Dhabi|
|Emirates||State-owned by the Government of Dubai through the Investment Corporation of Dubai.|
|United Kingdom||British Airways||None||State-owned until 1987.|
|Vietnam||Vietnam Airlines||Majority (86.2%)|
Aerolíneas Argentinas, formally Aerolíneas Argentinas S.A., is Argentina's largest airline and the country's flag carrier. The airline was created in 1949 from the merger of four companies and started operations in December 1950. A consortium led by Iberia took control of the airline in 1990, and Grupo Marsans acquired the company and its subsidiaries in 2001, following a period of severe financial difficulties that put the airline on the brink of closure. The company has been run by the Argentine government since late 2008, when the country regained control of the airline after it was taken over from the Spanish owners. As of December 2014, Aerolíneas Argentinas was state-owned. It has its headquarters in Buenos Aires. SkyTeam membership was achieved in late August 2012; the airline's cargo division became a member of SkyTeam Cargo in November 2013.
Kenya Airways Ltd., more commonly known as Kenya Airways, is the flag carrier airline of Kenya. The company was founded in 1977, after the dissolution of East African Airways. Its head office is located in Embakasi, Nairobi, with its hub at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport.
Air Mauritius Limited, operating as Air Mauritius, is the flag carrier airline of Mauritius. The airline is headquartered at the Air Mauritius Centre in Port Louis, Mauritius. Its main hub is Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam International Airport. Air Mauritius was placed in voluntary administration on 22 April 2020 in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Egyptair is the state-owned flag carrier of Egypt. The airline is headquartered at Cairo International Airport, its main hub, operating scheduled passenger and freight services to more than 75 destinations in the Middle East, Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Egyptair is a member of Star Alliance.
SkyTeam is one of the world's three major airline alliances. Founded in June 2000, SkyTeam was the last of the three alliances to be formed, the first two being Star Alliance and Oneworld, respectively. Its annual passenger count is 630 million (2019), the second largest of the three major alliances. As of January 2019, SkyTeam consists of 19 carriers from five continents and operates with the slogan "Caring more about you". It also operates a cargo alliance named SkyTeam Cargo, which partners ten carriers, all of them SkyTeam members. Its centralised management team, SkyTeam Central, is based at the World Trade Center Schiphol Airport on the grounds of Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in Haarlemmermeer, Netherlands.
Kuwait Airways is the national carrier of Kuwait, with its head office on the grounds of Kuwait International Airport, Al Farwaniyah Governorate. It operates scheduled international services throughout the Middle East, to the Indian subcontinent, Europe, Southeast Asia and North America, from its main base at Kuwait International.
Sudan Airways is the national airline of Sudan, headquartered in Khartoum. Since 2012, the company has been fully owned by the Government of Sudan.
Ethiopian Airlines, formerly Ethiopian Air Lines (EAL) and often referred to as simply Ethiopian, is Ethiopia's flag carrier and is wholly owned by the country's government. EAL was founded on 21 December 1945 and commenced operations on 8 April 1946, expanding to international flights in 1951. The firm became a share company in 1965 and changed its name from Ethiopian Air Lines to Ethiopian Airlines. The airline has been a member of the International Air Transport Association since 1959 and of the African Airlines Association (AFRAA) since 1968. Ethiopian is a Star Alliance member, having joined in December 2011. The company slogan is The New Spirit of Africa.
Royal Air Maroc, more commonly known as RAM, is the Moroccan national carrier, as well as the country's largest airline. RAM is wholly owned by the Moroccan Government, and has its headquarters on the grounds of Casablanca-Anfa Airport. It joined the Oneworld alliance in 2020. From its base at Mohammed V International Airport, the carrier operates a domestic network in Morocco, scheduled international flights to Africa, Asia, Europe, and North and South America, and occasional charter flights that include Hajj services.
Qatar Airways Company Q.C.S.C., operating as Qatar Airways, is the state-owned flag carrier of Qatar. Headquartered in the Qatar Airways Tower in Doha, the airline operates a hub-and-spoke network, linking over 150 international destinations across Africa, Asia, Europe, the Americas, and Oceania from its base at Hamad International Airport, using a fleet of more than 200 aircraft. Qatar Airways Group employs more than 43,000 people. The carrier has been a member of the Oneworld alliance since October 2013, the first Persian Gulf carrier to sign with one of the three major airline alliances.
JSC Uzbekistan Airways, operating as Uzbekistan Airways, is the flag carrier airline of Uzbekistan, headquartered in Tashkent. From its hub at Islam Karimov Tashkent International Airport, the airline serves a number of domestic destinations; the company also flies international services to Asia, Europe and North America.
TAAG Angola Airlines E.P. is a state-owned airline and flag carrier of Angola. Based in Luanda, the airline operates an all-Boeing fleet on domestic services within Angola, medium-haul services in Africa and long-haul services to Brazil, Cuba, and Portugal. The airline was originally set up by the government as DTA – Divisão dos Transportes Aéreos in 1938, rechristened TAAG Angola Airlines in 1973, and gained flag carrier status in 1975. It is now a member of both the International Air Transport Association and the African Airlines Association.
Aegean Airlines S.A. is the flag carrier airline of Greece and the largest Greek airline by total number of passengers carried, by number of destinations served and by fleet size. A Star Alliance member since June 2010, it operates scheduled and charter services from Athens and Thessaloniki to other major Greek destinations as well as to a number of European and Middle Eastern destinations. Its main hubs are Athens International Airport in Athens, Macedonia International Airport in Thessaloniki and Larnaca International Airport in Cyprus. It also uses other Greek airports as bases, some of which are seasonal. It has its head office in Kifisia, a suburb of Athens.
Air Astana is the flag carrier of Kazakhstan, based in Almaty. It operates scheduled, domestic and international services on 64 routes from its main hub, Almaty International Airport, and from its secondary hub, Nursultan Nazarbayev International Airport. It is a joint venture between Kazakhstan's sovereign wealth fund Samruk-Kazyna (51%), and BAE Systems PLC (49%). It was incorporated in October 2001 and started commercial flights on 15 May 2002.
Flynas, stylized flynas, formerly Nas Air, is a domestic and international low-cost airline based in Saudi Arabia, the country's first budget airline. The company's head office is located in Riyadh.
Air Côte d'Ivoire is the flag carrier of Ivory Coast, based in Abidjan. The company succeeded the country's former flag carrier Air Ivoire, which went bankrupt in 2011. It started operations on 12 November 2012.
Air Serbia is the flag carrier of Serbia. The company's headquarters is located in Belgrade, Serbia, and its main hub is Belgrade Nikola Tesla Airport. The airline was formerly known as Jat Airways until it was renamed and rebranded in 2013. In 2021 the company was awarded the Order of Karađorđe's Star.
Jambojet Limited is a Kenyan low-cost airline that started operations in 1 April 2014. It is a subsidiary of Kenya Airways and is headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya.
Ethiopian Airlines operates a fleet of Airbus A350, Boeing 737, Boeing 767, Boeing 777, Boeing 787 and Bombardier Dash Q-400 making a total fleet of 128 aircraft.
Malaysia is the latest nation to see its flag carrier – a label that in times gone by indicated a government-owned airline, and one that embodied a country’s national identity – teeter on the brink.
Kabul-based Safi is the country's No. 2 airline after national carrier Ariana Afghan Airlines.
Algeria's national airline Air Algerie is considering tie-ups...
The investment is beginning to pay dividends with flag carrier TAAG Angola Airlines increasing capacity by nearly 40% in the past year.
The Angolan government is the majority shareholder in TAAG.
At the same time, Argentina’s state-owned flag carrier Aerolineas Argentinas is attempting to transition to a more commercially minded airline after years of bleeding cash and being propped by the former Argentinian government.
Bahamasair, the national flag carrier of Bahamas, has placed a firm order for two 70- seat ATR 72-600s and three 50-seat ATR 42-600s.
This is the first direct purchase of Boeing aircraft for the Belarus flag carrier.
Belgian flag carrier Brussels Airlines has decided to replace seven of its 10 Airbus A330s, but is sticking with A330ceos for its fleet renewal and long-haul expansion.
Lufthansa took full control of Brussels Airlines through its parent SN Airholding in late 2016 and replaced top management Feb. 5, as the group revamps the airline to be more closely integrated with Lufthansa Group’s Eurowings low-fare division.
BoA Regional, a new joint venture in Paraguay with Bolivia's national carrier Boliviana de Aviacion, is "going well" and the airline is busy "developing new routes and working on new traffic rights to Brazil", says Oliver.
Even though BoA now has a monopoly on domestic trunk routes, it is unlikely the government owned carrier will abuse its new dominant position.
As the national carrier of Bulgaria, Bulgaria Air is based at Sofia Airport and operates scheduled services, ad hoc charter services and business jet transportation.
The Canadian flag carrier took delivery of its first Dreamliner in May 2014 and will receive a total of 29 new 787-9s by 2019, in addition to eight 787-8 aircraft already in operation.
This deal marks the second time that BOC has worked with Chile’s flag carrier.
Chinese flag-carrier Air China has reached an agreement to acquire six Boeing 777-300ERs.
Boeing delivered the 500th 787 Dreamliner, a 787-8 to Colombia flag carrier Avianca, during the week of Dec. 22, 2016.
This is the third time in the past five years that the small central European state has tried to find a way of divesting itself of a controlling interest in the national carrier.
Flag carrier Cubana de Aviación is resuming direct flights to Brazil with a Havana-São Paulo route on July 10, the tourism ministry said in a press release.
Effective November 1, the state-owned national carrier of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) plans to operate a multiple-weekly service between Kinshasa N'Djili and Johannesburg O.R. Tambo, South Africa using A320-200 equipment.
African flag carrier Air Djibouti has taken delivery of its first Boeing 737 as it prepares to launch commercial operations.
The state-owned carrier is initiating a major transformation strategy to increase revenues, develop new revenue streams by June 2016 and improve efficiencies.
Faroese national carrier Atlantic Airways anticipates a move into the ACMI market as it attempts to offset the effect of new competition on its primary route.
Flag carrier Fiji Airways will increase flight frequencies on its Fiji (Nadi International)-Hong Kong International route from Oct. 25.
The two men masterminded Europe’s first merger between two flag carriers in 2004.
But most of all the flag carrier will need to get its financial situation under control.
German flag-carrier Lufthansa appears to have cancelled orders for three Airbus A380s.
Greek flag carrier Aegean Airlines recorded a net loss of €21.5 million ($24 million) for 1Q 2016, widened from a €8.3 million net loss for the year-ago quarter.
Air Greenland has joined the European Regions Airline Association (ERA), bringing the number of airlines in membership to 53. The flag carrier of Greenland is the third airline to join ERA this year.
For the Hong Kong flag carrier, retiring 747-400s are being replaced largely by 777-300ERs.
The threat of a potentially lengthy strike hung over Iceland’s national airline, Icelandair, on Friday after the company’s mechanics announced plans for industrial action.
With 102 aircraft in service, the state-owned flag carrier is still a big beast, but with just 11 on order it looks set to slip down the fleet size table.
Indonesian flag carrier Garuda Indonesia may be forced to add a stopover to its recently introduced Jakarta-Amsterdam nonstop service as a result of runway certification problems at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta.
The aircraft was handed over to the Iranian flag carrier at Airbus’s final assembly line site at Toulouse, France on March 10.
Israeli flag carrier El Al received its 50th aircraft, a Next-Generation 737-900ER.
Bombardier also said Ivory Coast's national airline, Air Cote d'Ivoire, has agreed to buy two Q400 NextGen aircraft.
The Japan flag carrier expects its net profit to slip to ¥110 billion in the fiscal year through March 2019.
Air Astana is a joint venture between Kazakhstan’s national wealth fund Samruk Kazyna and BAE Systems, with respective shares of 51% and 49%.
Livingstone will become the Kenyan flag carrier's second Zambian destination, alongside capital city Lusaka.
Kuwaiti national carrier Kuwait Airways is to complete switching over its booking, ticketing and reservations system to the Amadeus Altéa Suite of products within the next six months.
The state-owned carrier, which had been in the doldrums for much of the 1990s and 2000s, is undergoing a major re-fleeting exercise.
Lao Airlines, the national carrier of Laos, will add a new route to its 19-destination network across the landlocked Southeast Asian country.
Latvian national carrier airBaltic will be the launch customer for the CS300 version of Bombardier’s CSeries, the manufacturer announced at the Dubai Air Show Nov. 8.
Libyan flag carrier Afriqiyah Airways unveiled its new livery at an event in the Rixos Al Nasr Hotel, Tripoli on 19 December.
The country’s two state-owned airlines, Libyan Air and Afriqiyah Airlines, which both suffered extensive damage to aircraft, resumed operations late 2011 and are gradually reestablishing their pre-war networks as aircraft return to service.
Libya’s national carrier and state-owned Libyan Airlines has taken delivery of its first Airbus A330-200, a 259-seater plane that will be used on the carrier's longer-haul routes.
The flag carrier hopes it can eventually improve yields across both cabins, leveraging the improvements in its product and new membership in oneworld.
The Mauritanian flag carrier operates a fleet that includes one Boeing 737-700NG and two 737-500s.
In March 2016, the island’s flag carrier Air Mauritius said it would move its Southeast Asian hub from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Singapore’s Changi.
The Mongolian flag carrier is expected to operate the 737 MAX aircraft on existing routes to South Korea, China, Japan, Russia, Germany and future new routes.
All carriers from Mozambique, including flag-carrier LAM, are being placed on the European Union's blacklist of airlines, in addition to a pair of Boeing 767s operating for Air Madagascar.
Myanmar flag carrier Myanmar National Airlines has taken delivery of the first of six ATR 72-600s as part of a $296 million order for the regional turboprop aircraft.
The Dutch flag carrier also added a twice-weekly Amsterdam-Salt Lake City service on May 5, becoming 3X-weekly from July 4.