What is a Flagship Carrier
What is a Flagship Carrier

Flagship Carriers: What They Are and Why They Matter

Did you ever wonder what makes a "flagship carrier" and how they shaped travel? Fly first-class on this non-stop service to aviation history enlightment!

Did you ever wonder what makes a "flagship carrier" and how they shaped travel? Fly first-class on this non-stop service to aviation history enlightment!

Considering the current state of air travel, where shrinking seat space and extra charges for basic amenities are the norm, it’s hard to imagine that airlines were once symbols of luxury and prestige.

A flagship carrier, also known as a national airline, is the country’s most important airline. While there isn’t a universal definition of what makes an airline a flagship carrier, their loosely defining core features include being a national symbol and providing international connectivity. Additionally, many flagship carriers have connections to their country’s government, often receiving financial support or being fully state-owned. Most are full-service airlines aiming for high-quality service and hospitality.

British Airways is one of the most iconic flagship airlines in the world
British Airways is one of the most iconic flagship airlines in the world

Since an unambiguous definition of flagship carrier is up in the air (pun intended), national airlines (and the countries they belong to) come in every combination possible; here are some examples:

  • While most countries have a single airline fitting the bill of a national carrier, many, like the UAE, have more than one (Etihad and Emirates).
  • Many countries don’t have an official flagship carrier. This is common with smaller nations and, notably, the USA.
  • Some countries “borrow” other nation’s flagship airlines. For example, ITA Airways (formerly Alitalia) is the Vatican’s national carrier.
  • Some airlines can be considered flagship carriers for multiple countries. LATAM Airlines, for example, is the national airline in several Latin American nations, including Chile, Peru, and Brazil.
  • Sometimes, national airlines are not the most popular in the country. Such is the case in Ireland, where Aer Lingus is much smaller than its low-cost competitor, Ryanair.
  • In other cases, like Colombia‘s, the state-owned airline (Satena) is not the most famous or internationally prestigious (Avianca).
  • There’s a special category within flagship carriers reserved for countries under monarchies. They’re called “Royal Airlines.” You can tell them apart by the crown icon they usually sport next to their logo. Examples include Spain’s Iberia, Royal Dutch Airlines (KLM), and Royal Jordanian.

Brief History of Flagship Carriers

Early 20th Century: Aviation’s Beginnings

A Brief history of airlines
A Brief History of Airlines

In 1919, the Dutch established the world’s first state-owned airline, known as Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij (KLM). KLM commenced operations on May 17, 1920, with a flight between London and Amsterdam. Albert Plesman was the founder and first director of the airline. Since its inception, KLM has been consistently active in the aviation market, making it the oldest operating airline in the world.

Shortly afterward, on November 16, 1919, Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services (QANTAS) was established in Australia. The company flew its first scheduled mail and passenger flight on November 2, 1922, traveling from Charleville to Cloncurry using an Avro Model 504K aircraft.

Avianca, the national airline of Colombia, was established in 1919 under the name Sociedad Colombo-Alemana de Transporte Aéreo (SCADTA). It is the world’s second-oldest airline still in operation today. Avianca played an essential role in connecting South America with North America and Europe. In 1946, it became the first Latin American airline to operate flights to the United States.

Pan Am, founded in 1927 by Juan Trippe, was an American airline that played a crucial role in the development of international air travel. It was the first airline to make a transatlantic flight, which took place on June 28, 1939. The pioneering airline introduced several innovations throughout its history, such as the use of jet aircraft for commercial flights and computerized reservation systems.

Mid-20th Century: Jetliners and Democratization of Tourism

In the mid-20th century, the introduction of jet aircraft revolutionized air travel and significantly contributed to the growth of flagship carrier airlines. This led to a surge in tourism as these airlines democratized travel by making it more accessible and affordable.

The de Havilland DH 106 Comet, which entered service in 1952, was the first commercial jetliner. British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC), a predecessor of British Airways, was among the first airlines to operate this jet. The Comet significantly reduced travel time, flying from London to Johannesburg in just over 23 hours, compared to the previous 54 hours on propeller-driven aircraft.

In the 1940s, Iberia expanded its network to destinations across Europe and Latin America, such as Buenos Aires and Havana. In the United States, Boeing launched its first commercial jet airliner, the Boeing 707, in 1958. Pan American World Airways (Pan Am) inaugurated its transatlantic 707 service between New York and Paris the same year, substantially reducing air travel time across the Atlantic Ocean.

Another significant milestone occurred in 1970 when Boeing introduced its iconic 747 jumbo jet. With its ability to carry large numbers of passengers over long distances, carriers such as Pan Am and TWA were able to offer much lower fares.

This technological breakthrough and increased affordability sparked a tourist boom worldwide throughout the mid to late 20th century. Consequently, flagship carrier airlines expanded their networks significantly during this period. Air France established new routes with its Caravelle jetliner in the early 1960s, including services to West Africa, the Middle East, India, and other destinations. Japan Airlines (JAL) also expanded by introducing its first international flight using a Douglas DC-8 in 1960.

However, the deregulation and privatization of the airline industry in the late 20th century led to a shift in how airlines operated. Many airlines were privatized, and the focus shifted to profitability and cost-cutting measures. This shift had a considerable impact on flagship carrier airlines.

1970’s and 80s: Deregulation and Privatization

Pan Am was the largest airline in the world to use B-747s
Pan Am was the largest airline in the world to use B-747s | Image Credit Dean Morley CC BY-ND 2.0 DEED

One key event in this process was the passing of the Airline Deregulation Act in the United States in 1978, which removed government control over airfares, routes, and market entry for new airlines. This Act resulted in increased competition, lower fares, and a boom in air travel.

In 1984, British Airways, the national carrier of the United Kingdom, was privatized under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government. This move was aimed to allow the airline to compete more effectively with other European carriers and expand its market presence.

Also notable is the European Union’s push for airline liberalization during the 1990s. This movement led to three “packages” of liberalizing measures between 1987 and 1992 that reduced restrictions on pricing, established freedom to provide services across EU member states, and removed barriers to new entrants into the market.

1990s: The Birth of Low-Cost Carriers

Deregulation and privatization had both positive and negative effects on flagship carriers. On one hand, it fostered competition, increased efficiency, and enabled carriers to expand their networks. On the other hand, it also resulted in job losses, bankruptcy for some airlines, and a general reduction in service quality due to cost-cutting measures.

As a result, low-cost carriers like Southwest Airlines in the US and Ryanair in Europe were able to expand rapidly. By employing strategies such as point-to-point routes instead of hub-and-spoke systems, flying a fleet that consisted solely of Boeing 737 planes for operational efficiency, and offering no-frills services with fewer amenities onboard, these budget airlines managed to reduce costs significantly.

Flagship Carriers Today

Iberia is Spain's flag carrier
Iberia is Spain’s flag carrier

In recent years, the airline industry has observed a shift toward low-cost carriers prioritizing profitability. However, some flagship airlines continue to focus on luxury, particularly in Asia and the Middle East.

Emirates, an airline based in Dubai, is known for its first-class cabins, offering private suites, high-quality dining, and lavish amenities. The company’s award-winning service has led to its continued success, with profits of $288 million reported in November 2019.

Similarly, Singapore Airlines remains committed to luxury with their A380 Suites Class, providing passengers with personal space, fine dining options curated by international chefs, and exquisite onboard amenities. As of September 2021, the airline maintained a solid financial position despite the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over in the Middle East, Qatar Airways retains its focus on delivering a luxurious flying experience through its Qsuite Business Class. The airline has received several awards for its premium services at the 2023 Skytrax World Airline Awards.

To Summarize:

Main Characteristics of a Flagship Carrier:

  1. Government affiliation: Many flagship carriers have strong connections to their country’s government, often receiving financial support or even being fully state-owned.
  2. Prominence: These airlines usually possess large fleets and extensive route networks, connecting their home country to significant global destinations.
  3. Recognition: A flagship carrier often bears the name or symbols of its nation, promoting the country’s image abroad.
  4. Quality and service: Flagship carriers offer high-quality service and amenities to showcase their country’s culture and values.

Aviation History Overview:

  • First airlines appear: The first commercial airlines emerged in the early 1900s with companies like Avianca (1919) and Qantas (1920).
  • First state-owned carriers: National airlines such as KLM (1919), Aeroflot (1923), and Lufthansa (1926) were established as state-owned carriers during this period.
  • Jet aircraft, democratization of travel, and tourist boom of the mid-20th century: The introduction of jet aircraft in the 1950s revolutionized air travel. Pan Am symbolized this era, democratizing travel with affordable fares and fostering a tourist boom.
  • Airline industry deregulation and privatization: In the late 20th century, many countries deregulated airline industries to stimulate competition. Major examples include the United States in 1978 and Europe in the 1990s.
  • Industry shifts to the east. Many Asian and Middle Eastern carriers become the standard of quality and service.

Top Flagship Carriers in the World by Passenger Numbers (2022)


  1. Lufthansa – 30.3 million passengers
  2. Air France – 27.5 million passengers
  3. British Airways – 24.8 million passengers
  4. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines – 20.1 million passengers
  5. Turkish Airlines – 19.9 million passengers
  6. Aeroflot – 17.2 million passengers
  7. Swiss International Air Lines – 15.6 million passengers
  8. Iberia – 12.9 million passengers
  9. ITA Airways – 11.7 million passengers
  10. LOT Polish Airlines – 10.2 million passengers

North America

  1. American Airlines – 215 million passengers
  2. Delta Air Lines – 200 million passengers
  3. United Airlines – 160 million passengers
  4. Air Canada – 64 million passengers
  5. Aeroméxico – 22 million passengers

Latin America

  1. LATAM Airlines Group (Chile) – 17 million passengers
  2. Aeroméxico (Mexico) – 15 million passengers
  3. Avianca (Colombia) – 14 million passengers
  4. GOL Linhas Aéreas Inteligentes (Brazil) – 12 million passengers
  5. Aerolineas Argentinas (Argentina) – 11 million passengers
  6. Copa Airlines (Panama) – 9 million passengers
  7. Caribbean Airlines (Trinidad and Tobago) – 8 million passengers
  8. TAME (Ecuador) – 6 million passengers
  9. Conviasa (Venezuela) – 5 million passengers
  10. Boliviana de Aviación – BoA (Bolivia) – 4 million passengers

Asia and Oceania

  1. Air China (China) – 110 million passengers
  2. All Nippon Airways (Japan) – 60 million passengers
  3. Qantas (Australia) – 35 million passengers
  4. Singapore Airlines (Singapore) – 24 million passengers
  5. Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong) – 23 million passengers
  6. Korean Air (South Korea) – 18 million passengers
  7. Thai Airways (Thailand) – 17 million passengers
  8. Garuda Indonesia (Indonesia) – 15 million passengers
  9. Air New Zealand (New Zealand) – 12 million passengers
  10. Malaysia Airlines (Malaysia) – 9 million passengers

All Flagship Carriers By Country

  1. Afghanistan – Ariana Afghan Airlines
  2. Albania – Air Albania
  3. Algeria – Air Algerie
  4. Argentina – Aerolineas Argentinas
  5. Australia – Qantas
  6. Austria – Austrian Airlines
  7. Azerbaijan – AZAL Azerbaijan Airlines
  8. Bahamas – Bahamasair
  9. Bahrain – Gulf Air
  10. Bangladesh – Biman Bangladesh Airlines
  11. Barbados – Caribbean Airlines
  12. Belarus – Belavia
  13. Belgium – Brussels Airlines
  14. Bhutan – Druk Air
  15. Bolivia – Boliviana de Aviacion (BoA)
  16. Bosnia and Herzegovina – FlyBosnia
  17. Botswana – Air Botswana
  18. Brazil – LATAM Brasil
  19. Brunei Darussalam – Royal Brunei Airlines
  20. Bulgaria- Bulgaria Air
  21. Burkina Faso – Air Burkina
  22. Burundi- Berunda Airlines
  23. Cambodia- Cambodia Angkor Air
  24. Cameroon- Camair-Co
  25. Canada- Air Canada
  26. Cabo Verde- Cabo Verde Airlines
  27. Central African Republic- Central African Airways
  28. Chad- Toumaï Air Tchad
  29. Chile- LATAM Chile
  30. China- Air China
  31. Colombia- Avianca
  32. Congo – Congo Airways for domestic and Compagnie Africaine d’Aviation (CAA) for regional flights.
  33. Costa Rica- Avianca Costa Rica
  34. Croatia- Croatia Airlines
  35. 35.Cuba- Cubana de Aviación
  36. 36. Cyprus/entityTurkish Cyprus:- Aegean Airways Orientals Ltd and CEYIZ TURIZM ITHALAT IHRACAT LIMITED SIRKETI
  37. 37. Czech Republic- Czech Airlines
  38. Djibouti – Air Djibouti
  39. Dominica – no official flagship airline
  40. Dominican Republic – Air Century
  41. Ecuador – TAME
  42. Egypt – EgyptAir
  43. El Salvador – Avianca El Salvador
  44. Equatorial Guinea – Ceiba Intercontinental Airlines
  45. Eritrea – Eritrean Airlines
  46. Estonia – Nordica
  47. Eswatini (Swaziland) – no official flagship airline
  48. Ethiopia – Ethiopian Airlines
  49. Fiji – Fiji Airways
  50. Finland – Finnair
  51. France – Air France
  52. Gabon – Afrijet Business Service
  53. Gambia – no official flagship airline
  54. Georgia – Georgian Airways
  55. Germany – Lufthansa
  56. Ghana – Africa World Airlines (AWA)
  57. Greece – Aegean Airlines
  58. Grenada – no official flagship airline
  59. Guatemala – TAG Airlines (Transportes Aéreos Guatemaltecos)
  60. Guinea – Guinea Airlines (currently not operating)
  61. Guinea-Bissau – no official flagship airline
  62. Guyana – Caribbean Airlines and Fly Jamaica Airways (jointly)
  63. Haiti – Sunrise Airways
  64. Honduras – CM Airlines (Aerolíneas Sosa and Avianca Honduras are also considered)
  65. Hungary – Wizz Air and LOT Polish Airlines (jointly)
  66. Iceland – Icelandair and Air Iceland Connect (jointly)
  67. India – Air India
  68. Indonesia – Garuda Indonesia
  69. Iran – Iran Air
  70. Iraq – Iraqi Airways
  71. Ireland – Aer Lingus
  72. Israel – EL AL Israel Airlines
  73. Italy – ITA Airways
  74. Jamaica – Caribbean Airlines
  75. Japan – All Nippon Airways (ANA) and Japan Airlines (JAL, jointly)
  76. Oman – Oman Air
  77. Pakistan – PIA Pakistan International Airlines
  78. Palau – Belau Submarine Cable Corporation (BSCC)
  79. Panama – Copa Airlines
  80. Papua New Guinea – Air Niugini
  81. Paraguay – Paranair
  82. Peru – LATAM Perú
  83. Philippines – Philippine Airlines
  84. Poland – LOT Polish Airlines
  85. Portugal – TAP Air Portugal
  86. Qatar – Qatar Airways
  87. Romania – TAROM Romanian Air Transport
  88. Russia – Aeroflot Russian Airlines
  89. Rwanda – RwandAir
  90. Saint Kitts and Nevis – No official flagship airline (regional carriers serve the country)
  91. Saint Lucia – No official flagship airline (regional carriers serve the country)
  92. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines – SVG Air
  93. Samoa – Samoa Airways
  94. San Marino – No official flagship airline (served by airlines from nearby countries)
  95. São Tomé and Príncipe – STP Airways
  96. Saudi Arabia – Saudia Arabian Airlines
  97. Senegal – Air Senegal SA
  98. Serbia – Air Serbia
  99. Seychelles – Air Seychelles
  100. Sierra Leone – No official flagship airline (regional carriers serve the country)
  101. Singapore – Singapore Airlines
  102. Slovakia – No official flagship airline (regional carriers serve the country)
  103. Slovenia – No official flagship airline (regional carriers serve the country)
  104. Solomon Islands – Solomon Airlines
  105. Somalia – Somali Airlines
  106. South Africa – South African Airways
  107. South Korea – Korean Air
  108. South Sudan – South Supreme Airlines
  109. Spain – Iberia Spanish Airlines
  110. Sri Lanka – SriLankan Airlines
  111. Sudan – Sudan Airways
  112. Suriname – Surinam Airways
  113. Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) – Eswatini Airlink
  114. Sweden – SAS Scandinavian Airlines
  115. Switzerland – SWISS International Air Lines
  116. Syria – Syrian Arab Airlines
  117. Taiwan – China Airlines
  118. Tajikistan – Tajik Air
  119. Tanzania – Air Tanzania
  120. Thailand – Thai Airways
  121. Timor-Leste – Air Timor
  122. Togo – ASKY Airlines
  123. Tonga – Real Tonga
  124. Trinidad and Tobago – Caribbean Airlines
  125. Tunisia – Tunisair
  126. Turkey – Turkish Airlines
  127. Turkmenistan – Turkmenistan Airlines
  128. Tuvalu – No official flagship airline (served by Fiji Airways and Air Kiribati)
  129. Uganda – Uganda Airlines
  130. Ukraine – Ukraine International Airlines
  131. United Arab Emirates – Emirates Airlines and Etihad Airways
  132. United Kingdom – British Airways
  133. United States of America – Multiple flagship airlines (American Airlines, Delta Air Lines & United Airlines)
  134. Uruguay – Amaszonas Uruguay (BQB Lineas Aereas has ceased operations)
  135. Uzbekistan – Uzbekistan Airways
  136. Vanuatu – Air Vanuatu
  137. Vatican City – No official flagship airline (ITA Airways considered unofficial flagship carrier)
  138. Venezuela – Conviasa
  139. Vietnam – Vietnam Airlines
  140. Yemen – Yemenia Airways
  141. Zambia – Zambia Airways
  142. Zimbabwe – Air Zimbabwe