DALLAS — We all know that KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (KL) is the oldest airline still in operation, but what about the oldest airlines still in operation that were established before WWII?
If airlines can survive for so long, there’s something special about them. Today we will uncover the success and survival stories of such airlines in what is a highly volatile and economically unstable industry.
The airlines on this list represent outstanding achievements in the aviation industry. They have survived two world wars, the Great Depression, the oil crisis, multiple financial crises, 9/11, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before we explore some of the oldest airlines in the world that continue to be part of our rich aviation history, we want to invite you to check out the latest issue of Airways Magazine and subscribe to the Airways NOTAM newsletter to join a community of thousands of daily readers.
The following includes the oldest and largest airlines still in operation. We have not included some regional carriers that were founded before WWII.
1. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines (KL)
KLM airlines (KL) is the flag carrier of the Netherlands and is legally known as Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij which is translated as Royal Aviation Company. The Dutch airline was founded on the 7th of October 1919, almost 103 yrs ago, by eight Dutch businessmen. It is considered as world’s oldest airline still in the operation.
The task to head the airline was given to Plesman who became the first administrator and director. The first flight took off on 17 May 1920, connecting Croydon Airport (EGCR), London, to Amsterdam with the help of de Havilland DH.16 aircraft.
KLM had to restrict its operations during WW2 and painted its aircraft with orange color to avoid confusion with military planes. Post-WW2, the airline again focused on rebuilding its network and further expanding its reach.
The company went through joint ventures with Northwest Airlines (NW) and a strategic partnership with Air France (AF). However, it still retains its originality and flies individually on its networks.
KLM has been a pioneer in many historical achievements over the past century, such as operating the first scheduled transatlantic flights, becoming a launch customer for various airliners, and taking part in many paradigm-shifting events.
Their slogan, “Journeys of Inspiration”, reflects the inspiring journey they have taken, from leasing four-seater Airco DH.16s to operating a fleet of over 100 aircraft, including Boeing 747s with seating for over 600 passengers.
KLM has gone from operating on just European routes to serving 170 destinations as of July 2022, making them a true globetrotter in the air travel industry.
2. Avianca (AV)
The Colombian flag carrier, Avianca (AV) a Spanish acronym of Aerovias del Continente Americano means “Airways of the American Continent” was founded in 1919 as Sociedad Colombo Alemana de Transportes Aéreos (SCADTA).
The airline was founded by some german immigrants hence the Colombo-German name SCADTA. It had its first flight on September 5, 1920, between Barranquilla and the nearby town of Puerto Colombia using german made Junkers F-13, the world’s first all-metal transport plane.
Before WWII, the prominent shareholder and Austrian tycoon Peter Paul von Bauer was forced by the US and Colombian administrations to sell his shares to Pan Am in an attempt to safeguard the airline from accession by Nazi Germany.
During WWII, the airline faced many challenges, Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor forced SCADTA to terminate operations and sell its assets to the Colombian government. With this, the government of Columbia merged SCADTA and the regional carrier SACO to form the airline we know today.
The airline was pushed to the brink of collapse by the Pandemic and had to file for bankruptcy on May 10, 2020, before restarting again on December 1, 2021. This was the second time the airline had filed for bankruptcy, having done so in 2003, and they underwent a substantial reorganization afterwards.
Throughout its operational history, the airline has gone through multiple mergers and acquisitions. As of February 2023, it has a fleet of 107 aircraft and flies to close to 130 destinations.
3. Qantas (QF)
Qantas (QF) is the acronym for Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services. The airline was founded on November 16, 1920, by three Australian businessmen.
The airline is considered the second-oldest in the world because Avianca (AV) was formed through a merger and was not the first carrier. However, we know that AV was compelled to merge following WWII.
The flying kangaroo, as its full name states, used to operate in the equatorial and barely populated region of northern Australia. It began operations on March 21, 1921, with an Avro 504, a first-generation biplane. However, as time passed, it shifted its headquarters to more progressive cities and expanded its operations across the continent.
WWII had an impact on carriers’ operations; aircraft were destroyed, and the remaining fleet was operated by the Australian government for war-related services.
In 1934, Qantas merged with Imperial Airways, followed by a merger with BOAC in 1947. Qantas then underwent nationalization, before merging with Trans Australia Airlines (TN). To expand further into Asian markets, QF then invested in the Jetstar Group.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many airlines had to make difficult decisions in order to survive. QF decisions included cutting 6,000 jobs, selling their 30% stake in Jetstar Pacific, and retiring their last Boeing 747 in July 2020.
However, with recovery in air travel, QF last year ordered new jets and showed that it has long miles to fly. As of early 2023, QF has a fleet of 122 aircraft which it deploys to over 90 destinations across 23 countries. It also has a futuristic vision and celebrates it via 100th Year Anniversary, 2120 livery.
4. Aeroflot (SU)
The flag carrier and the largest airline in Russia, Aeroflot (SU) were founded on February 3, 1923, as Dorbolet, so this year it completed its 100 years of operations.
The Sovnarkom of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic published a document titled “About Air Transportation” on January 17, 1921, which became the foundation stone for aviation in the USSR. On February 3, 1923, Sovnarkom approved agendas for the development of the Red Air Fleet, and it is this date that was officially recognized as the onset of civil aviation in the Soviet Union.
The communist party of Russia formed the Enterprise for Friends of the Air Fleet (ODVF) followed by the formation of Dobrolet. On 15 July 1923, the first flight took off from Moscow to Nizhniy Novgorod using the Junkers F-13 aircraft, the same used by Avianca (AV).
After civil aviation came under the Chief Directorate of the Civil Air Fleet, the Dorbolet was renamed “Aeroflot” on March 25, 1932. Until WWII, the airline experienced rapid growth.
When Nazis invaded the soviet union in 1941, the Aeroflot (SU) fleet came under the control of Narkomat, a People’s Commissariat. The SU operated around 46,000 mission flights during the battle of Stalingrad, between August 1942 and February 1943.
During the cold war, the airline operated its long-range Illushin Il-18, which flew to Cuba through Murmansk, in the Arctic, and the supersonic Tupolev Tu-144, the competitor to the Franco-British Concorde.
The Russian-made airliners played a crucial role in shaping the airline’s operations. Such aircraft include PS-35s, PS-43s, Lisunov Li-2s, Antonov An-2s, and more variants produced by Antonov and Illuyshin.
Over the century, the airline went through lots of changes in fleet, networking, mergers, and operations. But following the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, SU and other Russian carriers were banned from operating in the airspace of countries including the UK, Iceland, Norway, Canada, and also the European Union.
From the First World War to the Ukraine war, SU has witnessed all of these events and survived to celebrate its 100th anniversary. As of 2023, SU had a fleet of 173 aircraft and had deployed them to 110 destinations before Russian actions took effect.
There is one airline, Tajik Air (7J), which was founded as a division of Aeroflot (SU) on September 3, 1924, and is still operating today independently from SU. If we consider the date of its formation, it would be considered the seventh oldest continuously operated carrier in the world. However, because it’s founded as a division under SU, we are not considering it a separate carrier for ease of ranking.
Tajik Air ceased its operations in January 2019 but restarted them after six months. It currently flies to three destinations with a fleet of four airliners.
5. Czech Airlines (OK)
Another European carrier, Czech Airlines (OK) was founded on 6 October 1923, as a ČSA Československé státní aerolinie, the national carrier for the newly formed Czechoslovakia, now the Czech Republic.
Merely 23 days after its formation, it operated its first transport flight on October 29, 1923, between Prague and Bratislava using Aero A-14 (Brandenburg) bi-plane.
However during WW2, as the country was split into three parts, the airline was liquidated. In September 1945, as the war ended, it resumed its operations and was the only carrier in the country.
In 1950, OK became the first airline in the world to be the victim of a mass hijacking. It was the world’s first carrier to fly regular jet-only routes (between Prague and Moscow) using Russian-made Tupolev Tu104A aircraft.
Throughout the 1960s the airline went through rampant development, some including, transatlantic flights, adding new destinations in Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia.
After the breakup of the Czechoslovak Federation again in 1995, the carrier was renamed and had its name changed to “Czech Republic”. Between the 1990s and 2000s over two decades, it went through a vigorous restructuring of its fleet, network, and operations.
During COVID-19 Pandemic, the company went through insolvency and in 2021 filed for bankruptcy. You might be thinking then why is it on the list of operating airlines, OK in June 2022 came under new leadership, and currently have sole aircraft flying with a hub located in Prague. However, the new management is looking to revamp its fleet and route network utilizing Airbus A320 and A220 airliners.
The airline over a century went through lots of hardships following the splitting of the country twice, wars, economic predicaments, and pandemics. From a fleet of close to 50 aircraft flying to 75+ destinations in 2004 to operating only a single A320 in 2023. It is still battling against the odds to be viewed as the fifth oldest airline in operations on the planet.
6. Finnair (AY)
One of the world’s safest airlines, Finnair (AY) is the flag carrier of Finland. It was founded on November 1, 1923, within a month of the formation of OK. It was founded by consul Bruno Lucander as Aero O/Y (Aero Ltd).
The flight from Helsinki to Tallinn using Junkers F-13 with floats as a seaplane marked the commencement of the national carrier on 20 March 1924.
WW2 era was difficult for carriers following air raids over the country. The half of fleet was used by the country’s Air Force and the remaining was used to transport its citizens during the winter war.
Post-war the government wanted to operate more prolonged routes and for that reason, they acquired the majority of stakes in airlines and established European services in 1947. The company’s first step towards branding was made in 1953 when the carrier changed its name from Aero Ltd. to be known as “Finnair”.
In the 1980s, the airline became a pioneer in certain routes as it operated the first flights from western Europe to japan. Subsequently, following the Helsinki-Bejing route, it became the first Western European airline to fly non-stop to China.
From 1990 to 2010, the airline acquired some airlines, also formed Aero Airlines in 2001, and made pivotal partnerships with other European carriers. Since the 2010s the airline has restructured its fleet with modern airliners.
Despite the pandemic, the airline stayed on its path and as of 2023 it operates a fleet of 80 aircraft and serves close to 130 destinations. The airline’s slogan “Designed for you and The Nordic Way” says everything about the sixth-oldest continuously operating carrier in the world.
7. Delta Air Lines (DL)
The world’s largest airline in terms of yearly revenue, Delta Air Lines (DL) started as the world’s first aerial crop dusting operation called Huff Daland Dusters Inc., established in 1925 in Macon, Georgia.
The airline incorporated on December 3, 1928, as Delta Air Service. Delta’s name is based on the Mississippi Delta region. While the first passenger flight took off on June 17, 1929. Later in 1930, the passenger service ceased as the airmail agreement for the route Delta had pioneered was granted to another carrier.
On December 31, 1930, following the repurchase of crop-dusting assets, Delta Air Service changed its name to Delta Air Corporation. However, in 1934 the corporation secured the airmail contract and was again renamed “Delta Air Lines.” The real progression of the airline began in1950s and since then, the first American airline still in operation had tremendous growth.
Delta pioneered various routes and became the launching customer for various new airliners such as Douglas DC-8 and Douglas DC-9. It also has been a leader in various technology-driven advancements in the global aviation industry.
Since the 1970s, the US carrier has acquired Northwest Airlines (NE), Western Airlines (WA), and Pan Am Shuttle (PA) renamed Delta Shuttle. In 2003, DL launched the Song [airline], the LCC which later ceased operations in 2006 following bankruptcy filed by DL in 2005 citing rising fuel expenditures.
However, DL emerged from bankruptcy in 2007 and its shares were re-listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). One year later, in 2008, it acquired Northwest Airlines (NW) and completely integrated it with DL by January 31, 2010.
In 2020, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, DL made considerable adjustments to its network and operations.
Starting as an aerial crop duster, flying airmail, flying certain planes for the first time in the world, establishing leading alliances, becoming a pioneer in technological upgrades, acquiring bigger airlines, and emerging out of bankruptcy, Delta has seen a lot for over 97 years.
Since 1929, the DL has used indelible slogans, the first being, “Speed, Comfort, and Safety”, while “One of America’s Pioneer-Scheduled Airlines” in the 1950s, and most recently, “Keep Climbing” are some of the popular slogans.
As of early 2023, the airline has a magnificent operational fleet of 915 aircraft which includes around ten different types of airliners. With a mighty fleet, it has a strong network across the span of six continents and flies regularly to 222 destinations across the world.
8. American Airlines (AA)
The Major carrier of the United States of America, American Airlines (AA) is the seventh oldest carrier still in operation, but some specialists consider that it was formed after the No. 9&10 on the list. However, the first flight of 82 merged carriers to create American Airways Inc. was flown by Lindbergh on April 15, 1926. Charles Lindbergh flew the first AA flight – carrying U.S. mail from St. Louis, Missouri, to Chicago, Illinois.
But the actual formation started in the 1930s when the union of close to eighty small carriers came together. Initially, American Airways was a standard brand used by several independent small carriers.
In 1934, Errett Lobban Cord, also known as E.L. Cord acquired American Airways and renamed it ‘American Air Lines.’ Then Cord recruited C. R. Smith, a texas businessman to run the company.
CEO Smith worked closely with Donald Wills Douglas Sr. to produce the DC-3, which led to the first flight of AA between New York and Chicago on June 25, 1936. This marked the dawn of the largest airline on the planet in many criteria.
American Airlines worked with the New York City (NYC) mayor Fiorello La Guardia to build an airport in NYC. Following this, AA became the world’s first airline to own a lounge at the new LGA which is known as the Admirals Club.
During WW2, with half of its fleet shifted over to the military, Air Transport Command, along with the crews, the remaining planes and personnel endured a vast upsurge in demand for air travel within the country.
After WW2, AA expanded its network through a series of acquisitions and was considered the pioneer of various transcontinental routes. Over the eight decades, the AA has significantly expanded its fleet and routes.
American has come a long way, from intercontinental nonstop flights to opening the world’s first notable facility for flight attendant training, to offering coast-to-coast jet service with the Boeing 707, to adding more bigger Boeing 727s, 747s, 757s, 767s, and 777s, to introducing revolutionary frequent flier miles AAdvantage awards, to acquiring TWA, to form Oneworld alliances, and to various breathtaking innovations.
The airline drastically cut its domestic and international flights due to the inadequate travel demand amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Hence, AA declared a full-year net loss of about US$9bn in 2020.
As of 2023, the AA has the largest fleet in the world comprising 935 aircraft, While throughout its operational history, it flew more than 1100 aircraft. It has a vast network of around 350 destinations, which is the highest of all other operators across the globe.
9. Air Serbia (JU)
The flag carrier, Air Serbia (JU) originated on June 17, 1927, when the first Serbian company for civil air transport Aeroput was formed in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
The carrier’s first flight was a promotional flight that took off from Belgrade to Zagreb on February 15, 1928, with a french made Potez 29/2 bi-plane. By 1930, the airline expanded its route further into central Europe and positioned itself as a major regional carrier.
Post WW2, the company was nationalized by the Yugoslavian government and it was renamed in 1948 as Jugoslovenski Aerotransport (abbreviated JAT).
In 1985, JAT became the first European operator of the Boeing 737-300. It also introduced the ATR 42 and ATR 72 in 1987 for its local and domestic routes. According to IATA in 1988, It was the tenth-largest carrier in Europe by flying to 76 destinations across 39 countries on five continents.
It was rapidly modernizing its fleet with new jet planes, but the Yugoslav wars slowed down the plans. In 2003, the nation was renamed Serbia and Montenegro, and that same year the group was renamed Jat Airways.
In 2013, it entered into a strategic partnership for five years with Etihad Airways (EY), and was renamed “Air Serbia.’ In mid-2017, the airline restructured its operations to improve its performance.
Due to its persuasive strategy, it survived the Pandemic and recently the war, as it did not impose any sanctions on Russia due to the Russia-Ukraine war like other carriers, that’s why it continues to operate flights to Russia.
As of early 2023, it operates a fleet of 21 aircraft and deploys them to 60+ destinations across 30+ countries worldwide.
10. Iberia (IB)
The tenth oldest airline still in operation is the Spanish carrier, Iberia (IB), it was founded on June 28, 1927. It was incorporated with a capital investment of 1.1 million pesetas by the financier Horacio Echevarrieta and Deutsche Luft Hansa (not to be confused with today’s Lufthansa), a nazi german flag carrier.
They made their inaugural flight on December 17, 1927, following the sponsorship of the government to provide postal transport service between Madrid and Barcelona. Within a year company, it was nationalized due to dictatorship, and as a consequence, IB was integrated into Compañía de Líneas Aéreas Subvencionadas S.A. (CLASSA) and discontinued activities as an independent carrier on May 29, 1929.
After an operational suspension in the early 1930s, it was rejuvenated with German aid, by the nationalist side during the Spanish Civil War. Post-war, IB was once again nationalized and safely operated under government watch and has positioned itself as the flag carrier of Spain.
IB was the first airline to fly between Europe and South America after WW2. Using a Douglas DC-4 it accomplished flights between Madrid and Buenos Aires in 1946.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, the airline strengthened its international routes using Boeing and Douglas airliners. In 1987, IB, together with LH, AF, and SAS Group, founded Amadeus, an IT company (also known as a Global Distribution System or GDS).
Since the 1990s, the company progress exponentially with the help of technology and strategic planning. In 2010, the company confirmed the merger with British Airways (BA) to form the third-largest airline coalition in terms of revenue. The merger between IB and BA is known as International Airlines Group or IAG.
The IAG also holds various renowned carriers along with IB and BA such as Aer Lingus (EI), IAG Cargo, LEVEL (IB), Vueling (VY), and Avios group. As of 2023, IB independently operates a fleet of 84 aircraft over 90 destinations across four continents.
With this, we have completed the first half of our journey. Out of the 10 oldest carriers still in operation mentioned in this list, six are from Europe, two are from the USA, and the remaining are from other continents. Europe’s crucial role in shaping our aviation industry comes from the region’s industrial revolution, technological advances, and its strategic position on earth.
Stay tuned to Airways for the next 10 carriers founded before WW2 that are still operating In the second part. We will look at how they came into existence, their success stories, and some facts.
Which is your favorite airline from this list? Do let us know your views in the comments section of our social media channels.
Feature Image: PH-BHF, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner @KSLC. Photo: Michael Rodeback/Airways