Flying the flag: airlines and nationalism, Australia and beyond

This past week saw a labor dispute lead to a global shutdown of Qantas airlines, stranding 70,000 passengers for several days. Cameron Stewart wrote that we are witnessing “an emotional divorce between Australians and the flying kangaroo,” the end of “a love affair driven for decades by dewy-eyed nationalism.” But the transport union leader said he would ‘”stand by the the Australian brand of Qantas and not have it Asianised.”

“It used to be said that each country had an airline, a flag and a stock exchange,” said Ruben Lee, CEO at Oxford Financial Group in London. Over the years millions of dollars were sunk into national airlines, typically government-owned and loss-making. (Think Alitalia.) Cut-throat competition in the global airline industry and the entry of aggressive new players such as Emirates Air have undercut many of the national airline dinosaurs, which are typically hamstrung by incompetent management and strong labor unions. Qantas now carries only 18% of international travellers to Australia, down from 42% in 1993. (It still dominates the domestic market, though even there it faces competition from Virgin.)

Qantas became a particularly important part of Australian identity, because that remote country is so reliant on long plane journeys to reach anywhere else. 25 years ago marketer Allan Johnson came up with the strikingly successful “I Still Call Australia Home” TV ad campaign for Quantas, based on a patriotic song written by Peter Allen in 1980. Johnston explained “When you stepped on a Qantas plane overseas you felt at home straight away. It felt good.” The Qantas ad was updated over the years; the 2009 version had some lyrics sung in an Aboriginal language. There is an Aboriginal rap anti-nationalist version of the song, here. Another nice Australian patriotic song is The Seeker’s “I am Australian.” Johnston’s agency also produced a string of award-winning ads for the Australian Tourism Board, of the “put another shrimp on the Barbie” variety.

British Airlines marketed its British-ness with its 1970s “Fly the flag” campaign. In 1997 it dropped the flag logo from its tailplane, causing complaints from customers and confusion amongst air traffic controllers. It was reintroduced in 1999, in part because Virgin Atlantic had promptly painted the Union Jack on its planes and started calling itself “Britain’s national flag carrier.”

Aerial nationalism is also prevalent in developing countries. But it can backfire, where pride in the national airline is undermined by ageing aircraft, poor performance and safety risks – Air India being a prominent example.

The topic of airlines and nationalism has not attracted much attention from academics, apart from specialized aspects such as the legal dimensions of national regulation of this global business. Laszlo Korossy has an essay on nationalism and the airline industry. National airlines started emerging in Europe in the 1920s. Aviation was a strategic asset, and governments subsidized up to 70% of the costs of national passenger airlines. Now there are more than 30 flag carriers in Europe. The US does not have a single national carrier – though it does have the 1974 “Fly America Act,” which requires all trips funded by the federal government to taken on US-owned airlines. In recent decades, deregulation has forced the national airlines to open markets to competitors, and economic pressures have forced the merger of some airlines, notably Air France and the Dutch KLM, and Lufthansa’s takeover of the bankrupt Swissair.

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