Flag carrier

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.[1][disputed ]

Flag carriers may be known as such due to maritime law requiring all aircraft or ships to display the state flag of the country of their registry.[2]

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.

Background

An Airbus A380-800 of UK flag carrier British Airways.

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[3] as they were the "main national airline"[4] and often a sign of their country's presence abroad.[5][6]

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[7] or Lebanon's Middle East Airlines[8] for nationalist reasons, or to aid the country's economy, particularly in the area of tourism.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11]

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.[12] The aviation industry has also been gradually deregulated and liberalized,[13] permitting greater freedoms of the air particularly in the United States and in the European Union with the signing of the Open Skies agreement.[14] 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".[15]