While the wast majority of the airlines from the early days of aviation doesn’t exist anymore, some still do. In fact, you might be of the long history that some of the best known airlines like KLM and Delta have.
In this article, I take a look at the eleven oldest airlines in the world that are still active, at whether British Airways should or should not be in the list, and at what some of the airlines that pioneered aviation but don’t exist anymore are.
The 10 Still-Active Oldest Airlines in the World
Let’s start with the oldest airlines that still carry millions of passengers every year.
1. KLM (1919)
With Netherlands having colonies in, from Europe, distant places of the world in the past, it’s no surprise that KLM is one of the oldest airlines in the world – and the oldest active airline. In fact, the airline was originally started under a much longer name of Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij voor Nederland en Koloniën (Royal Dutch Airlines for the Netherlands and Colonies).
The first KLM flight took off on May 17, 2020 with a fairly light load. There was, of course, the pilot who took the De Havilland DH-16 from London to the airline’s Amsterdam Schiphol base. Besides that, there were two journalists, a letter from the Mayor of London to the Mayor of Amsterdam, and some newspapers.
Today, the airline is part of the Air France-KLM group and a member of the SkyTeam alliance. It serves more than 150 destinations around Europe and the world, and in 2018, it transported almost 9 million passengers. KLM is also one of the two airlines on this list that still operates the Queen of the Skies.
2. Avianca (1919)
Avianca’s history traces back to December 1919 when its predecessor, SCADTA, was founded in Colombia by German immigrants. In fact, its original name stands for Sociedad Colombo-Alemana de Transportes Aereos or the Colombian-German Air Transport Company.
The first aircraft type in its fleet was the German Junkers F13. Using that aircraft, SCADTA operated its very first flight, from Barranquilla to Puerto Colombia. Rather than carrying passengers, the flight transported 57 pieces of mail.
Since then, the airline has went through ownership changes and mergers a number of time. The airline got its current name in 9140 when SCADTA merged with another Colombian airline, SACO, to form Aerovías Nacionales de Colombia or Avianca in short.
Today, Avianca is the second largest airline in Latin America after LATAM. Besides its home country of Colombia, it also has subsidiaries in Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, and other countries in the region.
3. Qantas (1920)
The Australian flag carrier Qantas is the third oldest airline in the world. It was founded in November 1920 and started with domestic operations shortly thereafter. In 1935, it started its first international service, from Darwin to Singapore.
While nowadays, the airline is incorporated as Qantas, few people know that the name is actually an acronym. It comes from the airline’s original name, Queensland and Northern Territory Aerial Services.
With hubs in Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne – and operations on all six inhabited continents – Qantas has grown from one of aviation’s pioneers into one of the world’s leading airlines.
Together with KLM, it’s also one of the few remaining operators of the Boeing 747.
4. Aeroflot (1923)
Avianca isn’t the only airline to have started with the Junkers F13. Aeroflot, the fourth oldest – and once by far the largest – airline in the world used the same aircraft type to operate its first flight as well. The airline was at the time called Dobrolet and its first flight took four passengers and two crew members from Moscow to Nizhny Novgorod.
In 1932, the Soviet government united the entire civil aviation fleet in the Soviet Union under one entity at which point the airline became known as Aeroflot.
By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, Aeroflot operated over 5,000 airliners and almost 10,000 helicopters and light planes. With that many aircraft in its fleet – and the resulting accidents, the perception of Aeroflot’s safety was damaged.
Today, with about 250 aircraft, the airline is much smaller. Still, it operates an extensive network of flights within Russia as well as around the world. In the latter case, the flights mainly operate out of Moscow Sheremetyevo airport.
Aeroflot is one of the members of the SkyTeam alliance.
5. Czech Airlines (1923)
CSA, as Czech Airlines is commonly known, was founded in October 1923 as the Czechoslovak State Airlines. Its first flight took place the same year, connecting today’s capital of the Czech Republic, Prague, with today’s capital of Slovakia, Bratislava.
One of the airline’s major achievements was becoming the world’s first airline to operate a jet-only service. Starting from 1957, the airline put Tupolev Tu-104 aircraft on its Prague – Moscow route.
Originally relying on a fleet of Soviet aircraft, the airline replaced them with their Western counterparts in the 1990s.
Today, CSA is owned by Smartwings – an airline group that also operates Travel Service. While the other airlines in the Smartwings group don’t belong to any alliance, CSA continues to be a SkyTeam member.
6. Finnair (1923)
Staying in Europe, Finnair – which traces its origin back to November 1923 – is the sixth oldest airline in the world that still remains in service. It was founded under the Aero O/Y name which is also where its code, AY, comes from.
The company’s first flight took place in March 1924. Like other airlines on this list, Junkers F13 aircraft was used on the route. With no airport existing in Finland at the time, the aircraft was equipped with floats.
Today, the airline connects Finland with cities all over the world. It is particularly strong in connecting Europe with North Asia due to Helsinki’s favorable geographical location. In 2018, it transported over 13 million passengers using about 80 aircraft.
7. Delta Air Lines (1925)
Delta Air Lines is not only one of the oldest airlines in the world, but its predecessor – Huff Daland Dusters – was also the world’s first aerial crop custing company.
The company was turned into Delta Air Service in December 1928, getting its name from the Mississippi Delta region. It operated its first passenger flight on June 17, 1929, flying from Dallas in Texas to Jackson in Mississippi through Shreveport and Monroe, Louisiana.
Since then, the airline has gone through numerous ownership and operational changes – at one point even stopping passenger flights. Two of the most notable acquisitions that helped Delta grow to its current size were its take over of Pan Am’s East Coast and transatlantic routes in the early 1990s and merger with Northwest Airlines in 2008.
Today, Delta Air Lines is the world’s largest airline by total revenues. It carries almost 200 million passengers a year across its more than 300 destinations in more than 50 countries.
8. Tajik Air (1924)
Another in the series of airlines that started in the early days of commercial aviation with Junkers F13s is Tajik Air, the eight oldest airline still active. Its first flight took place on September 3, 1924, on the Bukhara – Dushanbe route.
With just one scheduled route – connecting the Tajik capital Dushanbe with Moscow – the airline has seen better days in the past. In fact, it even suspended its operations between January and November 2019, so some could dispute its position on this list.
Currently, its only active aircraft seem to be a single Boeing 757-200.
9. Air Serbia (1927)
Air Serbia traces its origins back to 1927 when Aeroput was formed in Yugoslavia. The airline started with domestic services – both cargo and passengers – but soon, in 1929, inaugurated its first international route from Belgrade to Vienna via Zagreb and Graz.
About two decades later, the airline was later rebranded into JAT (Jugoslovenski Aerotransport) – a name under which it was known until 2013. In October of the same year – after Etihad acquired 49% of the airline – it was rebranded to Air Serbia. In 2016, it launched flights to New York – the first route to the United States by an airline from former Yugoslavia since 1992.
Today, the airline operates a fleet of twenty, mostly narrowbody, aircraft on routes around Europe. New York remains its only long-haul route. The airline carries about 2.5 million passengers every year.
10. Grand Canyon Airlines (1927)
While the other airlines are relatively large international airlines, Grand Canyon Airlines is an outlier. It is an airline that operates under the less stringent commuter airline regulations.
It was started back in 1927 as Scenic Airways, initially operating Stinson SM-1 and Ford Trimotor aircraft out of Grand Canyon, Arzona. Today, the airline continues to serve the airport and also Page, Arizona, and Boulder City, Nevada.
It operates a fleet of De Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otters and Cessna Caravans on scheduled flights between those cities, as well as charter and sightseeing flights.
11. Iberia (1927)
The last airline on this list (although as you will read furhter, that is a bit disputed) is the Spanish flag carrier Iberia. The airline was founded on June 28, 1927, by a Spanish banker and Lufthansa. Its first flight operated later that year, on December 14, 1927.
Today, the company remains the largest airline in spain with a fleet of almost 100 aircraft. While it offers flights to all parts of the world, it is epsecially strong on flights between Europe and South America.
How About British Airways and Its 100th Anniversary?
With British Airways having gained some public attention through their “centenary” celebrations, you might wonder why the airline is not on the list. The reason is that British Airways itself was founded in 1974 through a merger of British Overseas Airways Corporatin (BOAC), British European Airways (BEA), Cambrian Airways, and Northeast Airlines.
Unlike with some of the airlines in the list above that started under different names, it wasn’t even one of the four airlines above that traces its origins back to 1919.
Instead, it’s two of the four airlines – Handley Page Transport and Instone Air Line – that went on to form Imperial Airways which in turn merged with the original British Airways founded in 1936 to form BOAC that started in 1919. As such, while the claim is not completely unfounded, it is a bit of a stretch to say that British Airways is 100 years old.
What Were Some the First Few Airlines in the World?
As mentioned earlier, the airlines listed above are the oldest airlines that still remain in service. There were other airlines before them – most completely unknown today – though.
The first airline in the world ot enter into revenue service was DELAG which operated from November 1909 until March 1935. Interestingly, the airline operated Zeppelin airships.
Other airline worth noting that traces its origins to the very beginnings of commercial aviation is the now-bankrupt Hungarian flag carrier Malev. One of its predecessors, Aero Rt. started all the way back in December 1910.
Finally, Chalk’s Ocean Airways which remained in service until 2007 was started all the way back in 1917 as well.
While many airlines went bankrupt over the hundred years that commercial aviation has been around, quite a few of them are still alive and well. In fact, quite a few of them – like KLM, Qantas, and Delta Air Lines – have grown to become some of the largest airlines in the world.
Others have gone on to use their history as a promotion tool. One of the most notable of those is British Airways which, rather controversially, celebrated its centenary recently.
Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the very oldest airline in the world, DELAG, doesn’t exist anymore.