The United Arab Emirates is in the unique position of having more than one official flag-carrying airline. Both Emirates and Etihad share the honor, with equal status in the eyes of the nation. But how did this duality come about?
What makes a flag carrier?
The concept of a flag-carrying airline is steeped in history. In the early days of aviation, these were usually state-owned entities, proudly adorned with the nation’s flag on their planes, literally ‘flying the flag’ to different places around the world. In many parts of the world, this remains the setup for the primary airline operating out of the country.
But to have more than one flag carrier is an unusual situation. For example, although Virgin Atlantic has laid claim to being the ‘UK’s second flag carrier,’ British Airways remains the de-facto flag carrier, even though state ownership ended many years ago. For the most part, whether state ownership or support remains in place or not, nations around the world are represented by just one flag carrier.
There is a notable exception, however. Over in the UAE, there are two flag-carrying airlines – Emirates and Etihad. How did the nation end up with two national airlines, and how does this work?
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The Emirates were not always united
Prior to 1971, the Trucial Sheikdoms existed as independent confederations in southeast Arabia. These sheikdoms were comprised of Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Dubai, Fujairah, Ras Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain. They had been an informal British protectorate until the treaties were revoked in December 1971.
Shortly after, six of the seven sheikdoms allied to form the United Arab Emirates, all except Ras Al Khaimah, which joined a couple of months later. However, each emirate within the unity…