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The world’s smallest flag carrier airlines

What is a flag carrier? Although there’s no official definition for the term, in aviation a flag carrier is usually a country’s most representative airline, flying the largest number of international routes.

Most countries have a flag carrier, and some even have more than one, such as the United Arab Emirates, served by both Etihad and Emirates. Others have no official flag carrier at all, like the United States – Pan Am was the last US airline that many considered a flag carrier, until it ended operations in 1991.

“There is no standard ‘test’ that defines a flag carrier, but fairly common threads include current or historical state ownership or government support, a reference to the country’s name in the airline’s branding, and typically a monopoly or a dominant position within that country’s international air travel markets,” says Gary Crichlow, an aviation analyst at consultancy firm AviationValues.

“In many ways, the largest and most developed airlines have superseded the term, becoming global brands. But at the other end of the spectrum, flag carriers are still very much a feature. Their fleet makeup and international route focus tend to reflect a combination of their geographic position, as well as where the cultural and economic ties are strongest.”

For example, Crichlow says, the international operations of small Caribbean carriers such as Aruba Airlines, Cayman Airways, Bahamasair, and Surinam Airways are almost completely focused on serving tourists and the diaspora in the United States, and their relatively close proximity means they can operate those routes with aircraft no larger than 737s or A320 narrowbodies.

Similarly, in the Pacific, Air Vanuatu’s single 737 and Solomon Airlines’ A320s focus heavily on flights to Australia.

But with smaller nations come smaller flag carriers, not all of them equipped for long-haul routes. Let’s take a look at some of the world’s smallest flag carriers by fleet size.

Air Albania (Albania)

Fleet size: 3

Currently serving five destinations from its hub in Albania’s capital, Tirana, Air Albania operates an all-Airbus fleet, consisting of one A319 and two A320s, which had all previously served with other airlines and are approaching 15 years of service.

It was founded in 2018, following a period of several years during which the Balkan country did not have a flag carrier. Turkish Airlines — the flag carrier of Turkey — owns 49% of the company.

Air Burkina (Burkina Faso)

Fleet size: 3

Founded in 1967, Air Burkina operates a fleet of two E-195 and one E-175 — sleek regional jets produced by Brazilian manufacturer Embraer, seating four abreast and carrying just a hundred or so passengers.

Bearing the flag of Burkina Faso, a landlocked country of about 20 million in West Africa, the airline offers destinations to nearby capitals such as Lomé in Togo, Dakar in Senegal and Accra in Ghana.

Air Marshall Islands (Marshall Islands)

Fleet size: 3

The Republic of the Marshall Islands is located roughly halfway between Hawaii and Australia, in the Pacific Ocean, and consists of five islands and 29 atolls, the most famous of which — Bikini — was the site of several US nuclear tests between 1946 and 1958.

The airline was founded in 1980, one year after the country’s independence, and operates one Canadian-made Bombardier Dash-8 (34 passengers) and two German-made Dornier 228 (18 passengers each). It offers daily services between Majuro, the capital, and the nation’s atolls and outer islands.

Aruba Airlines (Aruba)

Fleet size: 2

Aruba is a popular Caribbean vacation destination. - Juan Carlos Hernandez/ZUMA Press
Aruba is a popular Caribbean vacation destination. - Juan Carlos Hernandez/ZUMA Press

Aruba, a small tropical paradise off the coast of Venezuela, is a self-governing part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It is served by a single airline which is also its flag carrier, operating one Airbus A320 and one A321.

Founded in 2006, Aruba Airlines flies to a handful of destinations, including Medellin in Colombia, Georgetown in Guyana and Miami in Florida.

BermudAir (Bermuda)

Fleet size: 2

Launched in 2023, BermudAir is the first ever locally established airline in Bermuda, a self-governing British overseas territory and an archipelago of more than 170 islands and islets in the North Atlantic Ocean. Operating two Embraer E-175, formerly with British regional carrier Flybe, BermudAir offers connections to a small number of US destinations including Boston and Fort Lauderdale.

Cabo Verde Airlines (Cape Verde)

Fleet size: 2

A TACV Cabo Verde Airlines 737 takes off from Lisbon in 2013, before the airline was rebranded. - Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
A TACV Cabo Verde Airlines 737 takes off from Lisbon in 2013, before the airline was rebranded. - Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

It may only operate two aircraft — a brand new Boeing 737 MAX 8 and a slightly older 737-700 — but Cabo Verde Airlines has been around since 1958, when it was called TACV, for Transportes Aereos de Cabo Verde.

Renamed Cabo Verde Airlines in 2018, it serves destinations in the Americas, Europe and Africa for the island nation of just 500,000 that lies 385 miles off the coast of West Africa.

Czech Airlines (Czech Republic)

Fleet size: 2

Among the world’s oldest airlines, Czech Airlines was founded in 1923 and currently only operates two aircraft — a pair of Airbus A320s — after filing for bankruptcy in 2021 and some heavy restructuring.

It currently only offers flights to Madrid and Paris from Prague, but several more destinations are available via partner airlines. Only four other active airlines are older than Czech: KLM, Avianca, Qantas and Aeroflot.

Fly Arna (Armenia)

Fleet size: 1

Although currently not flying due to “operational revisions,” Fly Arna has been since 2021 the national carrier of the Republic of Armenia, a landlocked country of 3 million bordered by Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran.

Its fleet features a lone Airbus A320-214, which had previously been in service for over a decade with Air Arabia, an Emirati airline that owns a large stake in Fly Arna. Its destinations include Baghdad, Tehran and Moscow.

Sudan Airways (Sudan)

Fleet size: 2

Sudan Airways has been banned in the European Union since 2010. - Aviation-images.com/Universal Images Group/Getty Images
Sudan Airways has been banned in the European Union since 2010. - Aviation-images.com/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

The national carrier of the Northeast African country of Sudan is another one with a long history, since it was founded in 1946. Following two accidents — one in 2003 causing 116 deaths and one in 2008 causing 30 — the airline was grounded by its own government and then banned from flying in the European Union in 2010. Its fleet currently consists of one Boeing 737 and one Airbus A320.

Surinam Airways (Suriname)

Fleet size: 3

A Surinam Airways 737-300 prepares to depart Miami International. - Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
A Surinam Airways 737-300 prepares to depart Miami International. - Fabrizio Gandolfo/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Founded in 1953, Surinam Airways serves Suriname, a country of 630,000 people in northern South America. It operates two Boeing 737-800s and one A340, connecting the country’s capital, Paramaribo, with Amsterdam, Miami and Aruba, among others.

Before the pandemic it was also operating a 777, under lease from Boeing, but it was returned in 2021, and has since become Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator, an aircraft showcasing new sustainable aviation technologies.

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