What Is A Virtual Airline?

It is natural to prefix the word ‘airline’ with a word that describes the kind of service that a carrier offers. Frequent examples include terms like ‘low-cost,’ ‘full service,’ and ‘flag carrier.’ However, a less common (although equally valid) business model is that of ‘virtual’ airlines. Let’s take a look at how this interesting category of carriers works.

Alsie Express ATR
Alsie Express is a Danish virtual airline. Photo: Alsingeren via Wikimedia Commons

What are virtual airlines?

What sets virtual airlines apart from their ‘non-virtual’ counterparts is that their operations rely on outsourcing. This sees the carriers in question delegate various operational aspects to different companies, rather than traditionally running everything in-house. These elements can range from aircraft and crew hire to marketing.

Airlines sometimes need to be virtual due to not possessing an air operator’s certificate. A way around this is to contract other carriers to operate the flights for which they sell tickets. Indeed, while Isle of Man-based virtual airline Manx2 was responsible for selling its own tickets, its flights were operated by Germany’s FLM Aviation, with German-registered aircraft.

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily and weekly aviation news digests.

Taos Air Fairchild-Dornier 328JET
Taos Air is a virtual carrier catering for ski tourism in New Mexico. Its fleet consists of Dornier 328JET aircraft, which fly to Taos from California and Texas. Photo: Carguychris via Wikimedia Commons

Potential drawbacks of the model

While the model of a virtual airline is certainly an interesting one from an operational and economic perspective, it can’t always work perfectly. Being reliant on so many different outsourced companies means that there are more variables at play.

Of course, all of them need to function in harmony to deliver the complete package. As such, if one aspect falls through, it can have significant knock-on impacts on the operations of the virtual airline in question as a whole. Indeed, Italian leisure startup Sky Alps recently had a delayed start to its operational life due to a postponed aircraft delivery.

Meanwhile, over in the US, virtual carrier Taos Air had a strong start to life with a successful winter 2018/19 season, flying skiers to Taos from Austin and Dallas. However, it was unable to build on this in the short term with a summer program due to a lack of pilot and aircraft availability. That being said, it returned to the skies for winter 2019/20.

Sky Alps Dash 8-400
Sky Alps will operate out of Bolzano Airport in South Tyrol, Italy. Photo: Sky Alps

Another kind of virtual flying

When coronavirus began to spread rapidly worldwide in March 2020, commercial air travel was brought to a standstill. This left avgeeks unable to get their regular flight fix, and companies offered different solutions to this problem. For example, Steam launched a video game called Airplane Mode, in which players simulate being an airline passenger.

When Turkish Airlines operated a flight to mark the 101st anniversary of the country’s war of independence, it sold nine million virtual tickets to allow people to virtually partake in the celebrations from home. ‘Passengers’ on the flight were sent commemorative boarding passes, which will become artifacts of a time when air travel stood still.

Did you know about how virtual airlines work? Maybe you’ve even flown with one yourself? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.