Are Flag Carriers Going Out Of Style?

Around the world, a number of flag carriers are seeing dire times. On the other hand, a number of others are flourishing beyond belief. However, the rise of other private enterprises also begs the question, are flag carriers relevant in 2019?

Emirates and Thai Flag Carrrier
As more and more flag carriers struggle, is the concept of flag carriers coming to an end? Photo: Simple Flying

The ailing flag carriers

Unfortunately, more flag carriers are known for struggles rather than successes. More recently, South African Airways seems to be inching towards collapse. Despite taking some A350s, a staff strike and subsequent labor deal have left the carrier weakened and profits do not seem to be on the horizon.

South African Airways
South African Airways, the state-owned flag carrier of South Africa, appears to be limbering towards failure. Photo: Airbus

In Asia, Thai Airways is a flag carrier that should be immensely successful. Thailand is not only a growing tourist destination but also a hub for businesses. However, intense low-cost competition and increased costs have put the airline on edge as management seeks to find a way for the airline to keep flying.

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Thailand Flag Carrier
Thai Airways has faced intense pressure from low-cost carriers in Asia. Photo: Simple Flying

Nearby, Air India is barely hanging on. And, it appears that if the airline does not sell, the government may consider shutting down the loss-making carrier. A lackluster product, cutthroat environment, and a large, inefficient staff have plagued the carrier’s survival chances.

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Air India
Indian flag carrier, Air India, has not turned a profit in years. Photo: Simple Flying

In Europe, Alitalia has been more successful than Air India when it comes to expressions of interest. However, the sale process has not yet been completed and the airline continues to lose an incredible amount of money each day.

Alitalia
Alitalia loses hundreds of thousands of Euros per day. Photo: Simple Flying

The successful flag carriers

However, there are a number of successful flag carrier airlines. A fantastic example of one is British Airways. The airline operates an impressive long-haul network and hub out of London Heathrow. Financially, the airline has performed well and continues to have a strong reputation with travelers. Not to mention, the recently-debuted Club Suite will keep the airline among the top tier of airlines for premium travelers once it expands across the airline’s fleet.

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British Airways is a flag carrier
The UK’s flag carrier, British Airways, has done quite well over the years. Photo: Simple Flying

Also in Europe, Dutch flag carrier KLM has a strong reputation amongst travelers across cabin classes and flies to an impressive number of destinations.

KLM 737
KLM has performed impressively well over the last few years. Photo: Simple Flying

In Africa, Ethiopian Airlines is a well-known giant. Not to mention, the carrier’s successes have drawn the attention of multiple countries who have asked Ethiopian to assist in the creation of new carriers on the continent.

Ethiopian Airlines
Ethiopian is one of Africa’s leading carriers. Photo: Airbus

Turkish Airlines is another flag carrier that flies to more countries than any other carrier on the planet. The airline is well-known for offering a fantastic product and still has room to grow with the new Istanbul airport.

Turkish Airlines
Turkey’s flag carrier, Turkish Airlines, flies to more countries than any other carrier in the world. Photo: Simple Flying

Why flag carriers still matter

Flag carriers still have an important part in the world. South Africa, Thailand, and India have kept their respective carriers in the air because flag carriers play an important link to the outside world. The ability, furthermore, to fly a carrier where the flight attendants will likely speak the same language as the country itself does add an extra layer of security in the travel process for those who are a bit wary when it comes to flying.

Air China
Citizens of the flag carrier’s country may find it convenient to be able to fly a carrier and converse in their native language with flight attendants and even fellow passengers. Photo: Simple Flying

Important political links also help to sustain a flag carrier. In many cases, a foreign carrier may not seek to operate a flight that local governments and businesses may find to be important. For example, New York is an important business market and the only carrier flying direct between Moscow and New York is Aeroflot, the Russian flag carrier. No American carrier operates this route.

Aeroflot
Aeroflot is the only carrier to fly between New York and Moscow. Photo: Simple Flying

However, in a number of cases, foreign carriers offer better air connectivity than flag carriers. Or, flag carriers just cannot keep up with growing demand. For example, Air Canada operated a number of routes to India, such as from Vancouver and Toronto, while Air India just recently resumed flights to Toronto.

Air Canada
Air Canada offered better options between India and Canada than Air India. Photo: Simple Flying

In the United States, however, the “big three” soak up most of the passengers. None can rightly claim the mantle of being the United States’ flag carrier, but, together, they provide impressive global connectivity and give travelers plenty of options.

BIG THREE
The big three United States carriers offer impressive global services. Photo: InSapphoWeTrust via Flickr

Overall

There are examples of successful and failed flag carriers around the world. Ultimately, every flag carrier faces competition and a number of private carriers have given flag carriers intense competition. Some countries, such as the United Kingdom and the UAE, have flirted with the idea and reality of two flag carriers. Nevertheless, flag carriers still do have an importance in the world, although that importance may be diminishing.

Do you think flag carriers will still stick around? Or, are flag carriers going out of style? Let us know in the comments!

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mallthus

I feel like there are two kinds of flag carriers and even the airlines themselves don’t always understand the distinction. Carriers like BA and KLM, although flag carriers, are, first and foremost at this point in their histories, profit seeking businesses. The decisions they make on routes, service levels, suppliers, etc, are driven by profit motives. On the other hand, carriers like Air India and Kenya Airways are instruments of state. Their routes choices are often driven by prestige or powerful government patronage. Their supplier and staffing choices are made to satisfy the goals of government ministries. It’s this second… Read more »

Dennis

Hopefully they remain and stay strong. For passengers it’s a good thing – comfortable planes and good service. Unlike those airlines only interested in pleasing shareholders and making flying a misery.

Matt

National airlines are important tools to improve trade for a country. The article on Singapore airlines was a good one that explained it well. Singapore wouldn’t be what it is without Singapore Airlines. Same thing with Dubai and Emirates. British Airways used to bring pride to their nation with superior comfort and service. Now they’re barely above Ryanair in economy. Then, national airlines like Lufthansa got to where they are by sucking on the government teat for over 50 years, but now they are using EU regulations to keep other nations from doing the same.

Gerry S

If flag carriers operate only as a profit-driven entity they are usually sucessful. The U.S. can not be viewed as having a flag carrier because all the airlines are privately owned. But to operate an airline, driven by want of status, instead of being motivated exclusively by profit is crazy.

chk

Crikey…..majority of the ailing flag carriers in the article are part of Star Alliance