A flag carrier is a transport 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.
Historically, the term was used to refer to airlines owned by the government of their home country and associated with the national identity of that country. Such an airline may also be known as a national airline or a national carrier, although this can have different legal meanings in some countries. Today, it is any international airline with a strong connection to its home country or that represents its home country internationally, regardless of whether it is government-owned.
Flag carriers may also be known as such due to laws requiring aircraft or ships to display the state flag of the country of their registry. For example, under the law of the United States, a U.S. flag air carrier is any airline that holds a certificate under Section 401 of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 (i.e., any U.S.-based airline operating internationally), and any ship registered in the United States is known as a U.S. flag vessel.
The term "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 access 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.
Near the end of the 20th century, many of these airlines have been corporatized as a public company or a state-owned enterprise, while others have been 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".
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 or Region||Airline||Details of current state ownership||Details of former state ownership|
|Afghanistan||Ariana Afghan Airlines||Majority[needs update?]|
|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||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||State-owned|
|Cambodia||Cambodia Angkor Air||Majority (51%)|
|Canada||Air Canada||Minority state-owned by the Government of Canada (Estimated 6.4%)||State-owned until privatization in 1989.|
|Cayman Islands||Cayman Airways||State-owned |
|Chile||LATAM Chile||None||State-owned until September 1989.|
|China||Air China||Majority (51.7%): 40.98% through CNAHC and 10.72% through CNACG: 10||State-owned until 2004.|
|Costa Rica||Avianca Costa Rica|
|Croatia||Croatia Airlines||Majority (98%)|
|Cuba||Cubana de Aviación||State-owned|
|Cyprus||Cyprus Airways||None - 40% owned by Malta-based SJC Group|
|Czech Republic||Czech Airlines||None|
|DR Congo||Congo Airways||State-owned|
|Denmark||Scandinavian Airlines||Joint venture[nb 1]|
|Djibouti||Air Djibouti||Joint venture|
|Equatorial Guinea||CEIBA Intercontinental|
|Faroe Islands||Atlantic Airways|
|Fiji||Fiji Airways||Majority (51%)|
|France||Air France||Minority (18% share)|
|French Polynesia||Air Tahiti Nui||Majority|
|Germany||Lufthansa||Minority (20.05%) in the parent company since 2020 due to near-insolvency as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic ||State-owned until 1994; remaining government shares were sold in 1997.|
|Guyana||Caribbean Airlines||None|
|Jamaica||Minority (16%)|
|Trinidad and Tobago||Majority (84%)|
|Hong Kong||Cathay Pacific||Minority (6.08% by Hong Kong Government) + 28.17% through Air China Limited|
|Iceland||Icelandair||None - owned by Icelandair Group|
|India||Air India||None - owned by Tata Group||State-owned until November 2021|
|Indonesia||Garuda Indonesia||Majority (60.536%)||State-owned until February 2011.|
|Ireland||Aer Lingus||None – owned by International Airlines Group||State-owned until September 2006.|
|Israel||El Al||Minority (~1.1%)||State-owned until June 2004.|
|Italy||ITA Airways||State-owned, succeeded Alitalia starting from 15 October 2021|
|Ivory Coast||Air Côte d'Ivoire||Minority (49%)|
|Japan||Japan Airlines||None||State-owned until 1987.|
|Kazakhstan||Air Astana||Majority (51%)|
|Kenya||Kenya Airways||Minority (29.8%)|
|Lebanon||Middle East Airlines||Majority (99%)|
|Macau||Air Macau||Minority (5%)|
|Malawi||Malawi Airlines||Majority (51%)|
|Malaysia||Malaysia Airlines||State-owned 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|
|New Caledonia||Aircalin||Majority (99%)|
|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||State-owned|
|Portugal||TAP Air Portugal||Majority (72%) |
|Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||SVG Air|
|São Tomé and Príncipe||STP Airways||None|
|Serbia||Air Serbia||Majority (51%)|
|Seychelles||Air Seychelles||State-owned (100%)|
|Solomon Islands||Solomon Airlines||State-owned (100%)|
|Singapore||Singapore Airlines||Majority (54.5% through Temasek Holdings)|
|Somalia||Somali Airlines||State owned||Originally ended services in 1991 after the Somali Civil War, the Somali government discussed plans to restart services in 2012.|
|South Africa||South African Airways||State-owned|
|South Korea||Korean Air||None – owned by Hanjin||State-owned until 1969.|
|Spain||Iberia||None – owned by International Airlines Group|
|Sri Lanka||SriLankan Airlines||State-owned|
|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||Minority (47.86%)|
|Turkey||Turkish Airlines||Minority (49%)|
|Ukraine||Ukraine International Airlines|
|United Arab Emirates||Etihad Airways||State-owned by the Government of Abu Dhabi|
|Emirates||State-owned by the Government of Dubai through the Investment Corporation of Dubai.|
|United Kingdom||British Airways||None – owned by International Airlines Group||State-owned until 1987.|
|Vietnam||Vietnam Airlines||Majority (86.2%)|
Malaysia is the latest nation to see its flag carrier – a label that in times gone by indicated a government-owned airline, and one that embodied a country's national identity – teeter on the brink.
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.
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.
Bangladesh Biman, the national carrier, was the sole airline that handled direct cargo flights to the UK.
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.
Lufthansa took full control of Brussels Airlines through its parent SN Airholding in late 2016 and replaced top management Feb. 5, as the group revamps the airline to be more closely integrated with Lufthansa Group's Eurowings low-fare division.
Drukair, the flag carrier of Eastern Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, has signed a purchase agreement for one Airbus A320neo to support its growth plans and complement its existing fleet of three A319s.
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.
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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.
This is the third time in the past five years that the small central European state has tried to find a way of divesting itself of a controlling interest in the national carrier.
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.
The state-owned carrier is initiating a major transformation strategy to increase revenues, develop new revenue streams by June 2016 and improve efficiencies.
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 two men masterminded Europe's first merger between two flag carriers in 2004.
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.
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.
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.
The Japan flag carrier expects its net profit to slip to ¥110 billion in the fiscal year through March 2019.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
The Dutch flag carrier also added a twice-weekly Amsterdam-Salt Lake City service on May 5, becoming 3X-weekly from July 4.
The New Zealand flag carrier will launch two new routes to Australia and will add frequencies elsewhere, boosting capacity by 15% in the Australia-New Zealand market.
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.
Avmax leased one Bombardier Dash 8-Q315 to Air Niugini, the National Airline of Papua New Guinea.
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.
...La Reunion's national carrier, Air Austral, is planning to take a similar approach to some destinations in its long-haul network.
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 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.
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.
The Thailand flag carrier ceased Moscow operations in March 2015 because of weak demand.
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.
UK flag carrier British Airways (BA) continued to be the most profitable unit, with a 9.9% operating margin, followed by Iberia (1%).
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 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.