Flag carrier

A Concorde of the United Kingdom flag carrier British Airways

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.

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.[1] 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.[2][3]

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.[4] 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),[5] and any ship registered in the United States is known as a U.S. flag vessel.[6]


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[7] as they were the "main national airline"[8] and often a sign of their country's presence abroad.[9][10]

An El Al's Douglas DC-4 in 1948.

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[11] or Lebanon's Middle East Airlines[12] for nationalist reasons, or to aid the country's economy, particularly in the area of tourism.[13]

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.[14] 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.[15]

In the last two decades,[when?] however, many of these airlines have since been corporatized as a public company or a state-owned enterprise, or completely privatized.[16] The aviation industry has also been gradually deregulated and liberalized,[17] permitting greater freedoms of the air particularly in the United States and in the European Union with the signing of the Open Skies agreement.[18] 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".[19]

List of flag-carrying airlines

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[20] Majority[21]
 Albania Air Albania[22]
 Algeria Air Algérie[23] State-owned[24]
 Angola TAAG Angola Airlines[25] Majority[26]
 Argentina Aerolíneas Argentinas[27] State-owned[27]
 Australia Qantas[28] None State-owned until 1992.[29]
Virgin Australia[30] None
 Austria Austrian Airlines[31] None – owned by Lufthansa State-owned until 5 December 2008.[32]
 Azerbaijan Azerbaijan Airlines[33]
 Bahamas Bahamasair[34] State-owned
 Bahrain Gulf Air[35] State-owned[36]
 Bangladesh Biman Bangladesh Airlines[37] Public-limited company State-owned until 23 July 2007.
 Belarus Belavia[38] State-owned[39]
 Belgium Brussels Airlines[40] None – owned by Lufthansa[41] Was state-owned in its original incarnation (SN Brussels Airlines)
 Bhutan Druk Air[42] None
 Bolivia Boliviana de Aviación[43] State-owned[44]
 Botswana Air Botswana[45] State-owned[45]
 Brunei Royal Brunei Airlines[46] State-owned[46]
 Bulgaria Bulgaria Air[47] Minority State-owned (0.01%)[48]
 Burkina Faso Air Burkina
 Cambodia Cambodia Angkor Air[49] Majority (51%)[50]
 Cameroon Camair-Co[51]
 Canada Air Canada[52] None State-owned until 1989.[53]
 Cape Verde TACV[54]
 Cayman Islands Cayman Airways State-owned (100%)[55]
 Chad Chadian Airlines[56] Majority (51%)[57]
 Chile LATAM Chile[58][59] None State-owned until September 1989.[60]
 China Air China[61] Majority (51.7%), in which:[62]
  • 40.98% through CNAHC (100% state-owned)
  • 10.72% through CNACG (100% owned by CNAHC)
State-owned until 2004, now indirectly controlled through parent companies.[63]
 Colombia Avianca[64] None
 Croatia Croatia Airlines[65] Majority (98%)[66]
 Cuba Cubana de Aviación[67]
 Czech Republic Czech Airlines[68] None[68]
 DR Congo Congo Airways[69] State-owned[69]
 Denmark Scandinavian Airlines[70] Joint venture[nb 1]  
 Djibouti Air Djibouti[73] Joint venture
 Egypt EgyptAir[74] State-owned[75]
 Equatorial Guinea CEIBA Intercontinental[76]
 Eritrea Eritrean Airlines State-owned
 Estonia Nordica[77] State-owned[78]
 Eswatini Eswatini Airlink[citation needed] Joint venture
 Ethiopia Ethiopian Airlines[57] State-owned[79]
 Faroe Islands Atlantic Airways[80]
 Fiji Fiji Airways[81] Majority (51%)[82]
 Finland Finnair[83] Majority (55.8%)[84]
 France Air France[85] Minority (18% share)[86]
 French Polynesia Air Tahiti Nui[87] Majority[88]
 Georgia Georgian Airways None
 Germany Lufthansa[89] None State-owned until 1994;[90] remaining government shares were sold in 1997.[91]
 Greece Aegean Airlines[92]
 Greenland Air Greenland[93]
 Guernsey Aurigny Air Services[94] State-owned[95]
 Guyana Caribbean Airlines[96] None
 Hong Kong Cathay Pacific[97] Minority (6.08% by Hong Kong Government)[98]
Minority (16.03% by Chinese Government)
 Iceland Icelandair[101]
 India Air India[102] State-owned[102]
 Indonesia Garuda Indonesia[103] Majority (60.536%)[104] State-owned until February 2011. [105]
 Ireland Aer Lingus[106][107] None – owned by IAG State-owned until September 2006.[108]
 Iran Iran Air[109] State-owned[110]
 Iraq Iraqi Airways[111]
 Israel El Al[112] Minority (~1.1%)[113] State-owned until June 2004.
 Italy Alitalia[114] Minority (19.48%)[115] State-owned until 2008, and indirectly controlled through a state-owned company since 2013.[116][117]
 Ivory Coast Air Côte d'Ivoire[118] Minority (49%)
 Jamaica Caribbean Airlines[119] Minority (16%)
 Japan Japan Airlines[120] None State-owned until 1987.
 Jordan Royal Jordanian[121]
 Kazakhstan Air Astana[122] Majority (51%)[123]
 Kenya Kenya Airways[124] Minority (29.8%)[125]
 Kiribati Air Kiribati[126]
 Kuwait Kuwait Airways[127] State-owned[128]
 Laos Lao Airlines[129] State-owned[130]
 Latvia Air Baltic[131] Majority (80.05%)[132]
 Lebanon Middle East Airlines[133] Majority (99%)[133]
 Libya Afriqiyah Airways[134] State-owned[135]
Libyan Airlines[136] State-owned[136]
 Luxembourg Luxair[137] Majority (73.86%)[138]
 Macau Air Macau[139] Minority (5%)
 Madagascar Air Madagascar[140] Majority
 Malawi Malawian Airlines[141] Majority (51%)[141]
 Malaysia Malaysia Airlines[142] State-owned (100%) through Khazanah Nasional[143]
 Maldives Maldivian
 Malta Air Malta[144] Majority[145]
 Mauritania Mauritania Airlines[146]
 Mauritius Air Mauritius[147]  
 Mexico Aeroméxico[148] None State-owned until 2007.
 Moldova Air Moldova[149]
 Mongolia MIAT Mongolian Airlines[150] State-owned[151]
 Montenegro Montenegro Airlines[152]
 Morocco Royal Air Maroc[153] State-owned[154]
 Mozambique LAM Mozambique Airlines[155] State-owned
 Myanmar Myanmar National Airlines[156] State-owned[157]
 Namibia Air Namibia[158] State-owned (100%)[159]
 Nauru Nauru Airlines[160] State-owned[160]
   Nepal Nepal Airlines[161] State-owned
 Netherlands KLM[162] Minority (14%)[163]
 New Zealand Air New Zealand[164] Majority (53%)[165] State-owned until 1989, partially re-nationalized in 2001.[citation needed]
 North Korea Air Koryo[166] State-owned[167]
 Oman Oman Air[168] Majority[169]
 Pakistan Pakistan International Airlines[170] State-owned[171]
 Panama Copa Airlines[172] None
 Papua New Guinea Air Niugini[173]
 Philippines Philippine Airlines[174]
 Poland LOT Polish Airlines[175] State-owned[176]
 Portugal TAP Air Portugal[177] Majority (72%) [178]
 Qatar Qatar Airways[179] State-owned
 Republic of the Congo Equatorial Congo Airlines[180] Majority (70%)[citation needed]
 Réunion Air Austral[181]
 Romania TAROM[182] Majority (95%)[183]
 Russia Aeroflot[184] Majority (51%)[185]
 Rwanda RwandAir[186] State-owned[186]
 Saint Vincent and the Grenadines SVG Air
 Samoa Samoa Airways[187] State-owned[188]
 São Tomé and Príncipe STP Airways None
 Saudi Arabia Saudia[189] Majority
 Senegal Air Senegal[190]
 Serbia Air Serbia[191] Majority (51%)[192]
 Seychelles Air Seychelles[193] None
 Solomon Islands Solomon Airlines[194] State-owned (100%)[195]
 Singapore Singapore Airlines[196] Majority (54.5% through Temasek Holdings[197])
 South Africa South African Airways[198] State-owned[199]
 South Korea Korean Air[200] None[201] State-owned until 1969.[202][203][204]
 Spain Iberia[205] Minority (5%)[206]
 Sri Lanka SriLankan Airlines[207] State-owned[208]
 Sudan Sudan Airways State-owned[209]
 Suriname Surinam Airways[210] State-owned[211]
  Switzerland Swiss International Air Lines[212] None – owned by Lufthansa[213]
 Syria Syrian Air[214] State-owned
 Taiwan China Airlines[215] None State-owned until 1991. 51.28% held by non-profit Civic Aviation Development Foundation.[216]
 Tanzania Air Tanzania State-owned
 Thailand Thai Airways International[217] Majority (47.86%)[218]
 Trinidad and Tobago Caribbean Airlines[219] Majority (84%)[220]
 Tunisia Tunisair[221] Majority[221]
 Turkey Turkish Airlines[222] Minority (49%)
 Turkmenistan Turkmenistan Airlines[223] State-owned
 Uganda Uganda Airlines[224]
 Ukraine Ukraine International Airlines[225]  
 United Arab Emirates Etihad Airways[226] State-owned by the Government of Abu Dhabi[227][228]
Emirates[229] State-owned by the Government of Dubai through the Investment Corporation of Dubai.[230]
 United Kingdom British Airways[231] None State-owned until 1987.[232]
 Uzbekistan Uzbekistan Airways[233] Majority
 Venezuela Conviasa[234]
 Vietnam Vietnam Airlines[235] Majority (86.2%)[235]
 Vanuatu Air Vanuatu[236]
 Yemen Yemenia[237] Majority
 Zimbabwe Air Zimbabwe[238] State-owned[238]

See also