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. The term also refers to any carrier that is or was owned by a government, even long after their privatization when preferential rights or privileges continue.[disputed ]
A flag carrier (if it is a certificated airline rather than a holding company, conglomerate, or multinational private equity firm) may also be known as a national airline or a national carrier, although this can have different legal meanings in some countries.
The first definition is rooted in the fact that pursuant to Article 17 of the Convention on International Civil Aviation aircraft have the nationality of the state in which they are registered. U.S. law (14 CFR § 121.153 (a) (1)) requires American air carriers to operate aircraft registered in the United States and most countries have similar laws. Thus when an airline operates an international route, between two countries, having been designated pursuant to a Bilateral Air Transport Agreement any crime that would be committed on board would be prosecuted under the laws of the airline's state. Article 3 (1) of Tokyo Convention declares that "The State of registration [of the aircraft] is competent to exercise jurisdiction over "offenses and acts committed on board." " Therefore the aircraft is truly carrying the flag of its country. The American definition of "U.S.-flag air carrier service" contained in 48 CFR 47.403-1. is based on this first definition. The U.S. requirements under the Fly America Act, are consistent with requiring that Title 18 of the United States Code (U.S. Criminal Law) would protect U.S. government employees on flights to foreign countries.
The second and more broadly used definition of "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 carriers as 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 Al or 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, 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".
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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/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.|
|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||was 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|
|Cambodia||Cambodia Angkor Air||Majority (51%)|
|Canada||Air Canada||None||State-owned until 1989.|
|Cayman Islands||Cayman Airways||State-owned (100%)|
|Chad||Toumaï Air Tchad|
|Chile||LATAM Chile||None||State-owned until September 1989.|
|China||Air China||Majority (51.7%), in which:||State-owned until 2004, and indirectly control through parent company until now.|
|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[nb 1]|
|Djibouti||Air Djibouti||Joint venture|
|Dominican Republic||PAWA Dominicana|
|Equatorial Guinea||Ecuato Guineana|
|Faroe Islands||Atlantic Airways|
|Fiji||Fiji Airways||Majority (51%)|
|France||Air France||18% share|
|French Polynesia||Air Tahiti Nui||Majority|
|Germany||Lufthansa||None||State-owned until 1994; remaining government shares were sold in 1997.|
|Guernsey||Aurigny Air Services||State-owned|
|Hong Kong||Cathay Pacific||None|
|Ireland||Aer Lingus||None - owned by IAG||State-owned until September 2006.|
|Israel||El Al||Minority (~1.1%)||State-owned until June 2004.|
|Italy||Alitalia||Minority (19.48%)||State-owned until 2008, and indirectly control through a state-owned company since 2013.|
|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%)|
|Latvia||Air Baltic||Majority (99.8%)|
|Lebanon||Middle East Airlines|
|Luxembourg||Luxair||Majority (73.86%) |
|Macau||Air Macau||Minority (5%)|
|Malawi||Malawian 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|
|Namibia||Air Namibia||State-owned (100%)|
|Netherlands||KLM||Minority (6%)[needs update]|
|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||Majority (93%)|
|Portugal||TAP Portugal||Majority (50%) |
|Republic of the Congo||Equatorial Congo Airlines||Majority (70%)|
|Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||SVG Air|
|São Tomé and Príncipe||STP Airways||None|
|Serbia||Air Serbia||Majority (51%)|
|Solomon Islands||Solomon Airlines||State-owned (100%)|
|Sierra Leone||Arik Air||None|
|Singapore||Singapore Airlines||54.5% through Temasek Holdings|
|South Africa||South African Airways||State-owned|
|South Korea||Korean Air||None|
|Sri Lanka||SriLankan Airlines||State-owned|
|Swaziland||Swaziland Airlink||Joint venture|
|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 (51%)|
|Trinidad and Tobago||Caribbean Airlines||Majority (84%)|
|Turkey||Turkish Airlines||Minority (49%)|
|Ukraine||Ukraine International Airlines|
|United Arab Emirates||Etihad Airways||State-owned|
|United Kingdom||British Airways||None||State-owned until 1987.|
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.
The flag carrier accounts for 46% of international capacity (seats) at Baku, according to Innovata data.
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.
Bahrain national carrier Gulf Air is planning “some major aircraft announcements” on Jan. 21, the opening day of the three-day Bahrain International Air Show (BIAS).
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.
Airbus said Bhutan's national airline Drukair has firmed up an order for an Airbus A319 with sharklet fuel-saving wingtip devices.
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.
Slovenia-based Adria Airways and Croatia flag carrier Croatia Airlines have decided to freeze plans for privatization this summer.
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.
Ecuador’s national flag carrier operates on a mostly domestic network and some international routes to Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Panama...(subscription required)
LAC will compete with state-owned Tame, LAN Ecuador and Avianca subsidiary Aerogal.
The state-owned carrier is initiating a major transformation strategy to increase revenues, develop new revenue streams by June 2016 and improve efficiencies.
Protective policies do little to help Addis Ababa’s aspirations to become a large hub, so its future remains inextricably linked to the flag carrier’s growth plans.
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 Finnish flag carrier operates 5X-weekly services to Singapore, but will increase those to seven using a combination of A330 and A350 aircraft until the carrier takes delivery of more A350s.
The two men masterminded Europe’s first merger between two flag carriers in 2004.
...the government announced it had begun raising its stake in Air France-KLM to nearly 18% from 16%...
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.
Spanish flag carrier Iberia and Japanese flag carrier Japan Airlines have announced the start of codeshare arrangements on routes operated by Iberia between Madrid and Tokyo Narita, as well as the sales of joint fares on applicable routes from Oct. 18.
The flag carrier has been increasing its reliance on lower yielding sixth freedom traffic as the devaluation of the Kazakh tenge has impacted outbound demand but cost reductions have enabled it to remain profitable.
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.
The flag carrier of Lebanon, MEA becomes SkyTeam’s second Middle Eastern member, offering customers from the region access to an extensive global network.
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.
Luxair is one of the smallest flag carriers in Europe.
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.
Regional unrest in North Africa and the onslaught of LCC competition has taken its toll on Morocco’s national carrier, Royal Air Maroc (RAM).
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.
Air Namibia intends to further spread its wings by acquiring more modern planes and expanding its routes, in view of restoring its credibility as the country’s flagship air carrier.
The Dutch flag carrier also added a twice-weekly Amsterdam-Salt Lake City service on May 5, becoming 3X-weekly from July 4.
National carrier Air New Zealand reported a 61 percent fall in first half profits as fuel prices pushed higher...
According to Arik Air’s website, the Nigerian flag carrier’s long-haul fleet comprises two Airbus A340-500s and two A330-200s.
If sightings of the Ilyushin Il-18, a Cold War era Russian large turboprop that first flew in 1957 and had its heyday in the 1960s, are fairly scarce these days – with 11 examples in service – ticking off the one example flown by Air Koryo must rank high on any planespotter’s wishlist. North Korean travel agencies offer trips to enthusiasts to fly on aircraft belonging to the flag-carrier, described by one unkind journalist as the “world’s only one-star airline”.
Since the Oman Government took majority ownership in early 2007, the airline has lost a staggering OMR295 million (USD766.9 million).
According to the Pakistan flag carrier, the A330s will be used primarily for a 6X-weekly premier service to London Heathrow, which is being launched Aug. 14.
Papua New Guinea flag carrier Air Niugini is to add seven former KLM Fokker 70 aircraft to its fleet, building on one existing former KLM Fokker 70 that it took in October 2014.
Filipino flag carrier Philippine Airlines (PAL) plans to launch Cebu-Los Angeles (LAX) service from March 2016.
LOT Polish Airlines has become the launch customer for aircraft seating newcomer LIFT by EnCore, with the company’s first product entering service on the Polish flag carrier’s Boeing 737 MAXs.
Equatorial Congo Airlines SA, operating as ECAir, is headquartered in Brazzaville and currently operates as the flag carrier of Congo.
...La Reunion’s national carrier, Air Austral, is planning to take a similar approach to some destinations in its long-haul network.
Romanian flag carrier Tarom has issued a call for two 160- to 190-seat aircraft, which it will initially wet lease, before taking dry-leased aircraft.
Russian flag-carrier Aeroflot has agreed to take another 20 Sukhoi Superjet 100s, under a tentative agreement with the airframer.
The government of Samoa said the South Pacific country's state-owned airline must remain financially self-sufficient, as it relaunches international services. Samoa Airways began scheduled services with a flight to Auckland, New Zealand, on Nov. 14, and also will offer service to Australia.
Air Senegal, the new Senegalese national airline, has signed a firm contract for two ATR 72-600s at the Paris Air Show.
The Serbia flag carrier said the full-year results were achieved on the back of “significant growth” in passenger numbers, which increased 11% to 2.55 million year-over-year (YOY).
The government of Serbia retains a 51% majority stake.
Pacific island flag carrier Solomon Airlines will resume services following a grounding of its fleet over a payment dispute with its main funding partner, the Solomon Islands government.
Singapore flag carrier Singapore Airlines (SIA) plans to participate in a $20 million government-led initiative to promote inbound travel to Singapore.
State-owned South African Airways (SAA) will increase prices on all European flights to offset the costs of the EU's Emission Trading Scheme, it said on Monday.
State-owned carrier Sudan Airways, known for its delays, has lost out to new carriers offering better service.
The country’s flag carrier is Surinam Airways, a small airline with ambitions to carve out a profitable niche connecting this former Dutch colony with the world.
Suriname is also considering selling shares in telecommunications firm Telesur and Surinam Airways, which are state owned, and bank Hakrinbank, which is partly owned by the government.
SWISS, the national airline of Switzerland, has a fleet of A319s, A320s, A321s, A330s and A340s.
Taiwanese flag carrier China Airlines has taken delivery of its first of 10 Boeing 777-300ERs.
Tajikistan’s national carrier Tajik Air faces an uncertain future as privately owned Somon Air expands its share of the Tajikistan market and continues to outperform its government-owned rival.
The Thailand flag carrier ceased Moscow operations in March 2015 because of weak demand.
The board of beleaguered carrier Caribbean Airlines, the national airline of Trinidad and Tobago, has reportedly undertaken an evaluation of the airline’s routes as its long-haul operation to London continues to underperform.
As a majority state-owned airline in North Africa, Tunisair has retained most of the flag carrier privileges that are cemented in the 1944 Chicago Convention, but those protectionist practices run counter to the present realities of passengers wanting choice and low fares.
The Istanbul-based flag carrier flies to 45 domestic and 226 international destinations in 109 countries and operates 274 aircraft, comprising 62 widebody, 202 narrowbody and 10 cargo aircraft.
The flag carrier of Turkmenistan operates scheduled flights on 15 routes in 11 European and Asian countries including Frankfurt, London, Moscow, Beijing and Istanbul.
While a relatively large country (both in land mass and population – it has about 45 million people), the Ukrainian market (like many other markets in Eastern Europe) cannot easily sustain two large flag carriers, particularly as low-cost competition continues to increase.
The website of the UAE's other flag carrier, Emirates, says flights to Damascus remain operational.
The UK flag carrier said it is also working to find potential employment opportunities for bmi personnel facing redundancy with its industry partners, such as Rolls-Royce in the Midlands.
In May the airline reported a sharp rise in profits and revealed that it was making more money from each customer than it has done since it was privatised in 1987.
The flag carrier of the Republic of Uzbekistan has trained 18 pilots and two pilot-instructors for the new aircraft type.
The government-owned flag carrier has been focusing in recent years on short-haul and medium-haul expansion using its A321 fleet.
The Yemen national carrier said it was suspending flight operations “until further notice due to the prevalent unfavorable operational situation and restriction imposed on Yemen airspace.”
Government-owned flag carrier Air Zimbabwe currently operates only two international routes although it has been trying for some time to resume more international services.