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What is a 'Flag Carrier'?

The NetLetter Team recently has had an interesting discussion concerning use of the term 'Flag Carrier".

What criteria defines a country's 'Flag Carrier', (or 'National Airline') and is the term actually relevant and, if so, is it used accurately?

A Google search turns up quite a list of reference sites on the internet with a variety of views. Following is an excerpt from Wikipedia of 'Flag Carrier' that is both concise and vague.

'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. 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.'

Miriam-Webster simply states: An air or sea transport line flying the flag of the country to which it belongs.

So, it seems that 'Flag Carrier' is a term with an ever evolving definition. Deregulation and privatization have significantly changed the perception of a 'Flag Carrier'. It may be argued that, since apparently any airline can just apply a flag to its fuselage, the term is overused to the point of being redundant.

TCA / Air Canada has long  been considered to be Canada's 'Flag Carrier' due to its history of government ownership. However, Canadian Pacific Air Lines can also be considered a 'Flag Carrier' because it proudly bore the Canadian Flag on its livery while it was the Canadian carrier crossing the Pacific and on its other international routes. 

WestJet aircraft have a Canadian Flag on their aircraft fuselages, close to the aircraft registration, and proudly identifies as Canadian on international routes. 

It is commonly believed that the United States has never had a 'Flag Carrier', however, although it has never had a 'state-owned' airline, it has had (and still has) several 'Flag Carriers'.

See a List of Approved U.S. Flag Air Carriers from Georgetown University.

Additional references:

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flag_carrier

simpleflying.com/flag-carrier-airline 

Below: Air Canada and WestJet both proudly sporting Canada's iconic flag.

tmb aircanada flag tmb westjet flag

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