What Makes A Flag Carrier Airline?

Most countries have an airline that is often dubbed as its ‘flag carrier’. With the emergence of multiple popular airlines based in the same country, this term is starting to become grayer.

Air China B747
An airline with close association with a nation is often named as a flag carrier. Photo: Julian Herzog via Wikimedia Commons

Flag carriers were initially state-owned or at least government-supported, during a time when the costs of operating independently were too high. It was also in the interest of governments to have an airline that represented their country.

National pride

In 1944, 54 representatives from different countries came together as part of the Chicago Convention. Here, the idea of countries having their flags carried on aircraft liveries across the world started to draw appeal. These operations often made a loss and took up large parts of government budgets. However, national authorities still kept the airlines alive as they felt that it helped legitimize their countries abroad.

Due to the relationships grown, flag carriers still continued to receive support from governments even after the emergence of other, independent airlines. These national airlines are often used for political and economic motives. This is noticeable in sensitive regions with airlines such as Israel’s El Al and Lebanon’s Middle East Airlines remain under state control.

Boeing 747-400 El Al
El Al has an important role in Israel’s foreign policy due to the delicate situation in the country’s region. Photo: Mark Harkin via Wikimedia Commons

Leaving a legacy

Even after gaining autonomy, certain airlines continue to be dubbed ‘flag carriers’ due to their popularity and their patriotic name. British Airways is still called often called the United Kingdom’s flag carrier, despite the state relinquishing ownership in 1987. The airline is so popular that Virgin Atlantic issued a challenge to become the UK’s second national carrier behind BA.

Some airlines are subject to nationalization purely because of a country’s economic policy. This can be seen with Air China, which operates with backing from companies owned by China’s government.

Other countries hold more than one flag carrier. This is the case in the United Arab Emirates, with Etihad Airways and Emirates operating from Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively. These brands do much more than just gain revenue from airline ticket sales. These airlines also help boost tourism, trade and public relations in the country through extensive business models.

Emirates Airlines B777
Airlines such as Emirates play a huge part in a country’s national economy. Photo: Maarten Visser via Wikimedia Commons

Not essential

Some countries currently don’t have an obvious flag carrier. Before World War II, Pan American World Airways was the de facto flag carrier for the United States. However, the airline struggled to regain power following the war and deregulation in 1978 helped other popular companies to emerge. This caused the crash of many previously popular airlines, while a fortunate few grew to compete with each other.

The US is an example of why many countries do not need an official flag carrier. By enabling a free market, airlines can use their business sense to assist the country’s motives. There are continued reports of airline collapses and buyouts. There are also many new carriers emerging, giving new options for passengers.

With commercial aviation going through such dynamic changes, we may see more countries change their attitude towards flag carriers. Do you think that it is important for a country to have a national airline?