Humans have been flying since the Wright Brothers took to the air in 1903. Of course, airlines started later – with the first scheduled passenger flights in 1914 (across Tampa Bay, Florida). We take a look here at the 10 oldest. Note that some of the orders and listings could change depending on exact dates (such as incorporation or starting service), so treat this a bit flexibly.
KLM – October 1919
KLM (Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij in full) is generally recognized as the oldest airline still in service, under its original name. It was established in October 1919 by a group of investors and its first director Albert Plesman. The first flights began in May 1920, with a DeHavilland DH-16 aircraft between Croydon, London, and Amsterdam.
KLM began long-haul services in 1924, flying to Jakarta (known then as Batavia) using a Fokker F.VII aircraft. Curacao services began in 1930. Like most airlines, it suffered during the Second World War, but aircraft remained in use in both Europe and Dutch East Indian territory. It resumed services to Jakarta soon after the war, and New York services began in 1946.
It was the first European airline to use Douglas aircraft, operating the DC-2, DC-3, DC-4, and DC-6. Its first jet aircraft was the DC-8 in 1960.
The Boeing 747 was introduced in 1971 and the 747-400 in 1989. It was the first European airline to launch a frequent flyer program – known as Flying Dutchman. This became the Flying Blue program in 2005.
Today it is part of the Air France-KLM group. The two airlines merged in 2005, but operations and branding remain separate – hence the claim to continuous operation under the same name.
Avianca – December 1919
Avianca comes in very close behind KLM, founded just a few months later, in December 1919. It started life in Barranquilla, backed by German expatriates, as SCADTA (The Colombia-German Air Transport Company). Flights began in 1921, between coastal Barranquilla and inland Giroadot.
Its early aircraft were from German manufacturer Junkers. These used floats for water landings to allow operation with minimal infrastructure. It grew through mail and passenger services, linking previously hard-to-reach areas.
International services from Colombia to other South American countries began in the mid-1920s. Further afield, it struggled to compete with Pan Am’s rise and agreed to a deal where Pan Am took majority ownership. This shifted during the war years, with the Colombian government taking a stake and the name changing to Aerovías Nacionales de Colombia (Avianca).
Service soon started to the US, and to Europe by the 1950s. Pan Am’s backing, and the introduction of the Lockheed Super Constellation, helped it expand amidst growing competition. It entered the jet age with the Boeing 707 and was the first Latin American operator to take on the 747 in 1976.
Recent years have seen the airline struggle. In 2003, it filed for bankruptcy protection and merged with TACA in 2009. The airline continued under the Avianca brand, with its headquarters in Bogota. In 2020, however, it filed for bankruptcy protection for a second time amidst the global slowdown. With a reported loss of over $1 billion in 2020, its future remains fragile.
Qantas – November 1920
Australian airline Qantas makes it to third place. Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services (Qantas) started in 1920 with a mission to service the sparsely populated northern regions of the country. The first aircraft were biplanes – an Avro 504K and a Royal Aircraft Factory BE2E.
Scheduled service started in 1922 with a government mail contract, followed by passenger services in 1924 (with a four-seat de Havilland DH50 aircraft). The route network would reach the coast in 1929, with an extension to Brisbane.
Overseas services began in 1934 when Qantas and Imperial Airways (a predecessor of British Airways) jointly formed Qantas Empire Airways Limited (QEA). The route to the UK with Shorts S23 Empire flying boats in 1938 took nine days.
Qantas was nationalized after the Second World War, and services continued with both flying boats and aircraft such as the Avro Lancastrian and the DC4. Jet service began with the 707 in 1959. For several years in the 1980s, it operated an all 747 fleet, making its retirement particularly sad.
COVID has hit the airline hard, with international flights grounded and uncertainty over its A380 fleet. It has bold aims, though, with Project Sunrise looking at ultra-long-haul flights direct to London and New York from Sydney.
Aeroflot – July 1923
Russian airline Aeroflot traces its origins back to July 1923. It was known then as Dobrolet and started flights from Moscow using Junkers aircraft. It was renamed Aeroflot in 1932, with several companies coming together under state ownership.
After the Second World War, Aeroflot became the largest airline in the world for some time. It operated mostly USSR-built aircraft from Ilyushin, Tupolev, and Antonov. The Tupolev Tu-144 supersonic challenger to Concorde was of course one of the best known.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s brought major changes. Aeroflot was split into smaller companies in 1992, with Aeroflot itself focussing mostly on international routes from Moscow. This changed again in the 2000s, with Aeroflot competing openly in more areas.
It remains the largest Russian airline but is a fraction of its former peak. It operated some 5,400 aircraft at its peak in 1991. Today, it operates just 212 aircraft. It now flies an all-Airbus and Boeing narrowbody and widebody fleet (but has the regional Sukhoi Superjet as well).
Czech Airlines – October 1923
Czech Airlines was founded in 1923 by the Czechoslovak government, operating domestic cargo and limited passenger flights. Service was interrupted by the Second World War but was resumed by the Communist government later. It was the third airline globally to introduce jets (after BOAC with the Comet and Aeroflot), operating the Tupolev Tu-104 between Prague and Moscow.
Finnair – November 1923
Finnair started as Aero O/Y in 1923, running mail and cargo flight between Helsinki and Tallinn, Estonia. Its first aircraft were Junkers, fitted with floats for water landings. The airline’s code ‘AY’ is still reminiscent of this original name – it stands for Aero Yhtio (Yhtio meaning ‘company’).
After the Second World War, the Finnish government took a majority stake in the airline and invested in longer European services, using the DC-3 and then the Convair 440. Its name changed to Finnair in 1953.
Further expansion followed, with New York in 1969 and the US West coast in 1981. Asian flights started in 1976 with Bangkok, and in 1988 it became the first Western European airline to offer direct flights to China (Beijing).
Finnair has built its recent strength on US and European connections to Asia. Helsinki’s location makes for good connections and short flight times. It also allows extremely high aircraft utilization, with 24-hour aircraft rotations.
Tajik Air – September 1924
Tajik Air is not an airline we often talk about, nor is it very large (with just one Boeing 757 currently in service). But it is one the oldest. The state-owned airline started service in September 1924, flying a Junkers F13 aircraft, to Bukhara in Uzbekistan. Domestic and regional service expanded over the decades, with further Junkers, Lisunov, and Ilyushin aircraft.
It later added Boeing aircraft – one Boeing 747 in 1993, the Boeing 737 from 2007, the 757 from 2008 and one 767 in 2016. Recent times have been tough though. Privately owned Somon Air took over many routes, and Tajik Air actually ceased operations in 2019. It has since restarted service, but with just one 757 aircraft.
Delta Air Lines – March 1925
Delta Air Lines was not the first US airline, but it is the oldest still in operation. The US holds the claim as well to the oldest (fixed wing) airline. The St. Petersburg-Tampa Airboat Line started service across Tampa Bay, Florida in 1914.
Delta started life as Huff Daland Dusters, an aerial crop dusting company founded in Georgia. This produced and operated aircraft, nicknamed “Puffers,” to protect the cotton fields of the southern United States against the boll weevil insect.
Passenger services started in 1929, between Dallas, Texas, and Jackson, Mississippi (the name came from the Mississippi Delta area). Like the other major US airlines, it has expanded through both its own growth and mergers. Delta merged with Northeast Airlines in 1972 and took over most of Pan Am’s European routes. It merged again in 2008 with Northwest Airlines.
American Airlines – 1927
American Airlines has a more complicated history than Delta Air Lines, and some may argue that it actually started much later. Several airlines came together in the 1930s to operate under a single brand – but the oldest of these (American Airways) traces its origins back to 1927. Businessman E.L. Cord bought American Airways and rebranded it as American Airlines in 1934, with Texan businessman C R Smith as the airline’s first CEO.
Like Delta, American’s growth has been through both expansion and acquisition. In the 1970s, it acquired Trans Caribbean Airways. And in the 1990s, it took part of both TWA and Eastern Air Line’s operations. In 2013, it merged with US Airways to create the largest airline globally at the time.
Air Serbia – 1927
Although the airline only became known as Air Serbia in 2013, it traces its origins to several earlier national airlines of Yugoslavia. This started with Aeroput in 1927 and later became Jat Airways. Jat Airways operated several Western-built aircraft including the Caravelle, the DC-9, and the Boeing 707. Later it took on the 737, ATR 42 and 72.
The breakup of Yugoslavia altered its growth in the 1990s. In 1992, it became a public company and the flag carrier of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and later of Serbia. Etihad Airways took a 49% stake in Jat Airways in 2013, and the reformed airline became Air Serbia. The government of Serbia has since repurchased shares from Etihad and now controls 82%.
Hopefully, that has been an interesting review of some of the world’s oldest airlines. There are many others that could make the list too. Iberia has just missed out (it started in 1927). And British Airways holds claims to some of the earliest flights in 1919, although the airline was only formed in 1974. Feel free to discuss these, and others, in the comments.