United Airlines calls itself the flag carrier of the United States. What makes an airline a flag carrier and does that designation fit United Airlines in 2021? Does the USA really have a flag carrier?
United Airlines Calls Itself The Flag Carrier Of USA
Historically, a flag carrier referred to the airline(s) owned by the government of their home country and closely linked to the national identity of that country. Over time, the colloquial definition has loosened to include privately-held airlines as well that still represent their nation.
Think Air France for France, KLM for the Netherlands, Lufthansa for Germany, Turkish Airlines for Turkey, British Airways in the UK. Think Singapore Airlines for Singapore, Thai Airways for Thailand, Air India for India, Aerolineas Argentinas for Argentina.
When you think “flag carrier” you think national prestige. You think about linking the world to the nation for reasons far beyond profit. It’s about the greater economy and how air traffic, both passenger and cargo, feeds into it. Qatar Airways in Qatar. Etihad in Abu Dhabi. Emirates in Dubai.
You get the picture.
Technically, a U.S. flag air carrier is any airline that holds a certificate under Section 401 of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958. That includes United Airlines and a long list of other carriers.
But the U.S. really hasn’t had a de fecto flag carrier since Pan American (and perhaps, to a lesser extent, TWA). Sure, when you see American Airlines, Delta, or United around the world, you think of the United States. But “flag carrier” implies exclusively and prestige.
And at United, the carrier is telling employees it is not only a flag carrier, but the flag carrier of the USA, implying it is the only one. Earlier today I wrote about United Airlines resuming service to Israel. In a memo announcing the restoration of service, United said:
As we’ve proven over the last year, our agility in the face of crisis and disruption has allowed us to emerge as the flag carrier of the U.S. We offer more nonstop service than any other U.S. airline between the U.S. and Tel Aviv, and are committed to be the most dependable link between the two countries.
If we are talking about international connectivity outside North America, United does outperform American and Delta. But is that the metric upon which one becomes a flag carrier?
Perhaps American and Delta also fancy themselves as the flag carrier of the United States. The reference caught my eye because it is an increasingly antiquated term. Then again, with governments bailing out airlines all over the world, perhaps the concept of flag carriers are not so antiquated after all…
image: United Airlines