I wonder what the difference between the words "airlines" and "airways" is. Do you have any information on this?

I am asking this question to find out why some air carriers use "airlines" while others use "airways" on their brand names.

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    $\begingroup$ Probably better asked on english.stackexchange.com $\endgroup$ Mar 22, 2017 at 17:26
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    $\begingroup$ It isn't completely clear to me what you're asking here, can you add some more information and even examples of phrases that you want to clarify? For example, are you simply asking what is "an airway" and what is "an airline"? Or, as mentioned in a comment, are you asking why "British Airways" but "American Airlines"? Depending on what you're really asking, as @J.Hougaard suggested you may get a better response on english.SE. $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Mar 22, 2017 at 17:34
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    $\begingroup$ 3 excellent answers depending on which question, exactly, is the intended one. Even so, probably still better on English Language & Usage, or, possibly English Language Learners. $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Mar 22, 2017 at 18:36
  • $\begingroup$ @mins - inter means internal, not external. $\endgroup$
    – Davor
    Mar 22, 2017 at 21:00
  • $\begingroup$ @davor, I'm not sure what your comment is referring to, but "inter" usually means external, and more specifically means "between" two different things or places. The opposite word is "intra", for internal to a location or thing. For example, interstate means to go from one state to another. Intrastate means to stay within a state. Some companies process data on their intranet (internal to their company), and then send that data elsewhere on the internet (which goes external from network to network) $\endgroup$
    – Jimmy
    Mar 23, 2017 at 21:00

3 Answers 3


This answer assumes that you are asking about the business name chosen by various air transport companies, such as "American Airlines" vs "British Airways".

Short answer:

There is no difference semantically. It's purely a marketing decision. The company decides which "sounds better", and uses that as their official business name. There are several other similar nouns used in business names as well:

  • "Air" (either before or after): Air France. Korean Air. Or even as part of the name: Ryanair.
  • "Aviation": Grant Aviation.

  • And then don't forget that Delta uses a space: Delta Air Lines.

  • And then there are even some companies using several different nouns throughout their sub-divisions: "Trans Executive Airlines of Hawaii" is the name of a single airline company, but their cargo services are performed under the name "Transair", and their passenger services are performed under the name "Interisland Airways"

Long answer:

There is some historical context, going back to the days when ocean travel was the only form of international travel between continents separated by oceans. A "line" was a route between two points. A "liner", then, was a ship that sailed that line. Since it was on the ocean, it was commonly called an Ocean Liner, and companies that popped up to provide a scheduled service on those lines used the term "line" or "liner" in their name: Black Ball Line, or American President Lines.

When Trains came into being, they took up the same vernacular from their ocean transport heritage. The system of rails between two points was usually built by a company for its own use, and was sometimes called a "railroad", or a "railway", with no discernible reason why some chose one term over the other. The term "line" was still used, interwoven into the industry: a "main line" was a company's main route between two cities, and a "spur line" would branch off to a smaller town. Some companies named themselves with either the "roads" or the "ways" part: The Kansas Pacific Railway, or the Western Pacific Railroad.

The next major transformation in the transportation industry was air travel, which again borrowed terminology from both its ocean and rail heritage. An "air line" was a route between two points, and an aircraft providing service on that line was an "air liner", and company names went one of two directions: Air Lines (such as "Eastern Air Lines"), or Airways (such as "Western Canadian Airways")

The terms "air liner" (for an aircraft) and "air line" (for a company) eventually worked their way into the single-word terms as we know them, and they are officially defined, today.

But even in the early days, there were still many different nouns working their way into the company names: National Air Transport, Western Air Express, or Ford Air Transport Service. Following the Air Mail Scandal, (in which existing companies had to give up their air mail routes), many companies either merged or simply changed their names to re-gain air mail contracts. Several companies with names of XXX Air Lines (with the space) simply changed to XXX Airlines (without the space), and this is now why we see this term (Airlines) in company names today. (with Delta Air Lines being a notable difference)

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    $\begingroup$ Ha! Thanks for the catch, and the edit, @freeman. I'm also a proud member of the Grammar Police, and usually carry out my duties to "Serve and Correct" faithfully. I loath seeing apostrophe catastrophes; but, even worse when I make them myself. $\endgroup$
    – Jimmy
    Mar 22, 2017 at 20:00
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    $\begingroup$ Apostrophe Catastrophe. I call band name! $\endgroup$
    – blaughw
    Mar 22, 2017 at 23:28

This would be a good question for English Language and Usage.se. The two terms are almost entirely synonymous, but come from slightly different etymologies.

Air travel borrows a lot of its language from previous forms of travel. "Way" is an old word that has developed a ton of different meanings. It originally indicated a path or route. It also indicated passage, as in right of way. When the Romans built roads it became a name for that, roadway. When trains came along it was a rail road or railway. Railroad companies are often called railways. It's used in shipping also, such as a waybill. It was simply borrowed into the aviation industry, both in the names of companies and the "roads" or routes in the sky designated for navigation.

The main source of words for aviation is ocean shipping, which itself adopted a few terms from rail travel. Before a railroad can go somewhere you must first lay down lines. The word was also used for the routes. Eventually it was used for the whole idea of a scheduled system of routes.

The idea of a scheduled system of origins and destinations was then borrowed into shipping. Passenger boats become ocean liners and the companies were often called things such as White Star Line. So it evolved from a description of actual train tracks, to a system of routing to the company itself.

When aircraft came along they borrowed a lot of terminology from shipping. This is where we get airlines. There are a ton of examples of terms borrowed from shipping. That's certainly why, since we get on boats, we also get on planes. But as George Carlin noted, I much prefer to get in the plane.

  • $\begingroup$ Other than the fact that boat travel came along long before rail travel, I think you're spot on. $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Mar 22, 2017 at 18:35
  • $\begingroup$ @FreeMan Boat travel preceded railroads and rail borrowed a ton of terms from shipping, but it seems when I was looking this up once, a long time ago, many of the terms dealing with the industry (as opposed to the operation) came along during the first industrial revolution. It's been a long time since I read all that stuff, and I might be mistaken, but I believe "way" goes back to the renaissance in shipping. "Line," on the other hand, was only used in shipping for ropes and the second meaning was first used in rail. When I get some time I'll see if I can pin down some dates on it. $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Mar 22, 2017 at 18:52
  • $\begingroup$ @FreeMan I also did a lot of cut and pasting while I was writing the answer and I notice I had a few things in one paragraph that were originally from another. $\endgroup$
    – TomMcW
    Mar 22, 2017 at 19:01

An airline is a company that provides air transport services for traveling passengers and freight. Airlines utilize aircraft to supply these services and may form partnerships or alliances with other airlines for codeshare agreements. Generally, airline companies are recognized with an air operating certificate or license issued by a governmental aviation body.

An airway is:

A control area or portion thereof established in the form of a corridor. (ICAO Annex 11 - Air traffic Services).

A control area or portion thereof established in the form of a corridor equipped with radio navigation aids. (EUROCONTROL EATM Glossary of Terms)

The lateral and vertical extent of airways is detailed in the appropriate national AIP(Aeronautical information publication).

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    $\begingroup$ I think intent of the question is more along the lines of: what is the difference between American Airlines, and British Airways. $\endgroup$
    – Jimmy
    Mar 22, 2017 at 15:48
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    $\begingroup$ Airway: The aviation equivalent of a motorway(UK)/highway(US). $\endgroup$
    – Gerry
    Mar 22, 2017 at 15:48

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