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With the recent United Airlines fiasco, I was reading up on their history and the airline industry and to my surprise I found that United Airlines is not the US flag carrier. In fact, the US does not have flag carrying airline at all! All this time I thought UA was the national carrier for the US. This brings me to the question, why? Why doesn't the US have a national carrier? Is this because of some FAA regulation?

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    $\begingroup$ Are you asking why the United States doesn't have a government (approved/sanctioned/official) airline? Or are you asking if the US has a "flag" (US registered) airline? Usually the US government at least tries to stay out of commercial enterprises... $\endgroup$ – Ron Beyer Apr 13 '17 at 16:58
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    $\begingroup$ British Airways is not a govt approved/official airline. $\endgroup$ – Simon Apr 13 '17 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ Because the US believes in free enterprise (at least in theory - there's always Amtrak :-(), so the government shouldn't be operating businesses. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Apr 13 '17 at 17:41
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    $\begingroup$ AFAIK Pan Am and TWA were considered flag carriers until deregulation. They weren't government owned, but they were assigned the international routes that were negotiated by treaty with other countries. Deregulation ended regulatory control over routing and pricing, so the concept of flag carrier in the US disappeared $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Apr 13 '17 at 18:06
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    $\begingroup$ It does, it's called Air United States of America Airways... what, you've never heard of them? Well they are very small, they don't even have their own football team. $\endgroup$ – Michael Apr 13 '17 at 22:27
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The definition of a "Flag Carrier", although somewhat vague and frequently disputed, is generally accepted to mean: an air carrier that is owned by, or subsidized by, the government of the country of registration, especially for the purposes of flying international routes.

Wikipedia:

A flag carrier is a transportation company, such as an airline or shipping company, that, being locally registered in a given 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.

Business Dictionary:

Airline ... registered under the laws of a country whose government gives it partial or total monopoly over international routes.


The US has no carriers in this category. All subsidizing of major domestic and international routes ended with the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. (Note: there are still some small airlines and routes that are subsidized to serve very small communities... If you want to read more about this program, it's called Essential Air Service.)

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    $\begingroup$ I really hope our "Flag Carriers" are not flown by the Dept. of State $\endgroup$ – goodguys_activate Apr 14 '17 at 0:57
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    $\begingroup$ Darn that pesky free enterprise thing. $\endgroup$ – radarbob Apr 14 '17 at 1:22
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    $\begingroup$ So, I mean what was the logical reasoning for arriving at the Airline Deregulation act? Did something event force them for this? Where can I read more about the events that led to this act? $\endgroup$ – Di437 Apr 14 '17 at 18:01
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    $\begingroup$ Wow. over 50 years of various political events, 6 or 7 changes to air transport laws, 4 different government bodies being created, changed, and abolished, various accidents, and changing societal values. This entire "US History of Aviation" eventually led to the deregulation act. There is no "any one thing", nor can it be "easily" explained within the context of this website. One good book: Contrived Competition: Regulation and Deregulation in America. (can read parts of it on google books). Talks about deregulating several industries in the 70s, with the airlines being just one of those. $\endgroup$ – Jimmy Apr 14 '17 at 19:50
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    $\begingroup$ Oh great! Thank you @Jimmy $\endgroup$ – Di437 Apr 15 '17 at 19:15
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There are many meanings of "flag carrier", one of which is not addressed in the other answers.

In regulated international air travel markets, each pair of countries would agree (via treaty) to let each others' "flag" carriers fly between them. For instance, Britain would allow Air France (France's flag carrier) to fly to London in return for France allowing British Airways (Britain's flag carrier) to fly to Paris. Where a country owned and/or subsidized one particular airline, that was the obvious choice as the flag carrier, but that is the only connection.

The US, for various reasons, was allowed to name two flag carriers: Pan-Am and TWA. Later deregulation of the most profitable markets left them vulnerable to destructive competition, and they eventually folded. United inherited Pan-Am's flag status, and American inherited TWA's flag status. That doesn't matter in the many deregulated markets, of course, but it still matters for the many markets that are still regulated. Non-flag carriers, such as Delta, can only access regulated markets via a codeshare agreement with the other country's flag carrier.

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All US carriers operating on a type 401 certificate are referred to as flag carriers. No subsidy issues are part of consideration

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We were recently told these were the Flag Carriers of the US, under the Fly America First:

Federal travelers are required by 49 U.S.C. 40118, commonly referred to as the "Fly America Act," to use U.S. air carrier service for all air travel and cargo transportation services funded by the U.S. government.

My company gave us this list:

U.S. flag air carriers: • Airtran Airways (FL) • Alaska Airlines (AS) • American Airlines (AA) • Continental Airlines (CO) • Delta Airlines (DL) • Frontier Airlines (F9) • Hawaiian Airlines (HA) • JetBlue Airways (B6) • Midwest Express (YX) • Southwest Airlines (WN) • Spirit Airlines (NK) • United Airlines (UA) • USAirways (US)

With plenty of exceptions relating to international travel.

From vanderbilt.edu/ocga/docs/vupolicies/FLYAMERICAACT.pdf

U.S. Flag Air Carrier. The term "U.S. flag air carrier" means an air carrier holding a certificate under section 401 of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 (49 U.S.C. App. 1371). Foreign air carriers operating under permits are excluded.

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  • $\begingroup$ I quoted from this: gsa.gov/policy-regulations/policy/travel-management-policy/… and was given the list of carriers by my company. $\endgroup$ – CrossRoads Mar 1 at 16:12
  • $\begingroup$ "U.S. Flag Air Carrier. The term "U.S. flag air carrier" means an air carrier holding a certificate under section 401 of the Federal Aviation Act of 1958 (49 U.S.C. App. 1371). Foreign air carriers operating under permits are excluded." from vanderbilt.edu/ocga/docs/vupolicies/FLYAMERICAACT.pdf $\endgroup$ – CrossRoads Mar 1 at 16:16
  • $\begingroup$ I think that perhaps someone had done the research to determine which airlines were certified under section 401. Our company is on the small side and uses a travel agent to book flights, with no deals that I know of as we have never been to told to use one airline over another. More like, 'if you want to be reimbursed for your flight with no issues, you shall use one of these carriers'. $\endgroup$ – CrossRoads Mar 1 at 16:22
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    $\begingroup$ Those are not "flag carriers" in the sense meant by the question. They are simply American companies. You might use the same logic to claim that Ford and GM are "flag" automakers. $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Mar 1 at 17:35
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    $\begingroup$ No, those are what one might call "carriers who fly under the American flag". That's not the same as a "flag carrier". $\endgroup$ – David Richerby Mar 1 at 18:20

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