A TWA, featuring the Boeing 707, ad seen in The Saturday Event Post in 1959

A TWA, featuring the Boeing 707, ad seen in The Saturday Event Post in 1959 – Image: Jeremy’s Collection

I love looking back at old airline advertisements that promote a new type of aircraft that will soon become the flagship of the fleet. We are talking about the iconic birds of yesteryear; like the Lockheed Constellation, Boeing 707, Douglas DC-8, McDonnell Douglas DC-10, and Lockheed L1011. However, there was one aircraft that let the world know that your airline has arrived (literally and figuratively): the 747 Jumbo Jet.

Before I continue, let’s make sure we are on the same page about the definition of “flagship.” I really hate it when people just say “well, Merriam-Webber defines <insert word here> as…” because it is just a super lazy way to get your point across. Whatever, it is really easy to do it that way…

flagship
noun
flag·​ship | \ ˈflag-ˌship  \
1: the ship that carries the commander of a fleet or subdivision of a fleet and flies the commander’s flag
2: the finest, largest, or most important one of a group of things (such as products, stores, etc.) —often used before another noun

In AvGeek terms, the flagship is often the coolest airplane that they have that will make passengers think “golly gee, that is a swell plane and I want to fly on it, I am going to take that airline” (I actually tried to make that sound sarcastic, but that is how I legit feel when I am looking for flights).

 

With so many airlines moving to smaller aircraft (B737, A320, E-Jet, and A220) and operating aging fleets (B767,B 757, A330ceo, etc), what aircraft do they see as their flagship today? I found some that were pretty obvious, and others that had me scratching my head. I am making my best guesses based on the information that airlines put out there to the public, so I might be wrong. With one or two, I am pretty sure that I am wrong. Let me break it down by airline, let you know what I found, and you tell me if you disagree.

ALASKA AIRLINES FLAGSHIP: Airbus A321

Although Alaska’s Boeing 737s still have “Proudly All Boeing” printed on them, I am having a hard time buying it any more. Yes, while there have been Q400s and the E-Jets flying with the Alaska livery, they have been operated under the larger Alaska Air Group. But now Alaska mainline is flying Virgin America’s A320-family of aircraft and even though they might have been planning get rid of them when the leases were up, who knows at this point. My guess is they were hoping to make the MAX their new flagship, with a new fancy interior, but since it is delayed, they are rolling out their updated (and impressive) product on their Airbus A321. So for now, I think that the “Proudly All Boeing” fleet of Alaska currently has an A321neo as their flagship. Based on my recent flight on one of their A321s, this is not really a bad thing.

DELTA AIR LINES FLAGSHIP: Airbus A350 XWB

Years ago, even when the 747 was still in Delta’s fleet, I thought it odd that Delta used a 737 in their marketing. Maybe they went that direction since more passengers are likely to experience a Delta 737 vs another aircraft? I am reaching here. No matter what, it was weird and I didn’t like it.

Delta uses a cover photo of an Airbus A350, which I feel is their flagship - Screenshot: Twitter.com

Delta uses a cover photo of an Airbus A350, which I feel is their flagship – Screenshot: Twitter.com

Now, it is more obvious that Delta prefers to use their newer Airbus A350 as their flagship, and it is not a bad choice. I wonder if Delta would have kept the Northwest 787s that were on order when they merged, would those have been their flagship instead? Personally, I think of the A350 as more of a flagship vs the Dreamliner (bigger, and I kind of like it better). I am just glad that I am not seeing the 737 as much, since they have more interesting planes.

AMERICAN AIRLINES FLAGSHIP: Boeing 787 Dreamliner

American highlights their people vs their airplanes - Screenshot: AA Facebook

American highlights their people vs their airplanes – Screenshot: AA Facebook

American calls their premium lounges “Flagship Lounges,” so you know they understand the concept. However, their flagship aircraft wasn’t super obvious — probably for good reason. On their Twitter and Facebook, they use the same photo of employees. Yea, I get it… that is totally a good thing, but it makes my job of finding their flagship aircraft a little more difficult. Even their Instagram literally focuses more on the people, where the airplanes are blurry in the background. However, I will say that this is probably the best photo ever:

Can I say that their flagship is a Boeing 747-100 and a DeLorean? Probably not. After some surfing, I think I found the answer…

If you wait a while, an AA Boeing 787 will show up on their website - Screenshot: AA.com

If you wait a while, AA’s Boeing 787 will show up on their website – Screenshot: AA.com

When I went to America’s website, they have cycling images with stories related to them. One involves a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Then, when you go to their fleet page, there is a nice big photo up top of the 787.

It is a plane, but is it a real flagship (as in not computer generated)? - Screenshot: AA.com

It is a plane, but is it a real flagship (as in not computer generated)? – Screenshot: AA.com

The weird thing about this “photo” is I am quite sure it is fake. I get using a fake photo when the plane is new to the fleet, but gosh darn it, that silver paint on the 787 looks good… why not use a real flying photograph for your flagship aircraft?

SOUTHWEST AIRLINES FLAGSHIP: A Mystery

Southwest's flagship might be a heart or hotdog stand - Screenshot: Twitter.com

Southwest’s flagship might be a heart or hotdog stand – Screenshot: Twitter.com

I tried hard on this one folks, but couldn’t find what kind of aircraft Southwest sees as their flagship. I am leaning towards the 737, but I need to do some more research. I will update when I find anything new.

HAWAIIAN AIRLINES FLAGSHIP: Airbus A330

Facebook cover photo for Hawaiian Airlines - Screenshot: Facebook.com

Facebook cover photo for Hawaiian Airlines (and they use the same on Twitter) – Screenshot: Facebook.com

Probably not a big shock, but Hawaiian is still rocking the Airbus A330 on everything that I could find. I was sort of wondering if the Airbus A321neo would show up, but I am guessing that they want to show passengers that they are still using wide-bodies, while many other airlines go for the single aisles.

Section of Hawaiian's website that shows the A330 times two - Screenshot: hawaiianairlines.com

Section of Hawaiian’s website that shows the A330 times two – Screenshot: hawaiianairlines.com

Although I am calling the official flagship for Hawaiian the Airbus A330, I am giving a close second to the Boeing 717. There is no data to back this up and I couldn’t find any photos of the plane (other than their fleet page and that photo wasn’t so great), but it is such a cool bird.

You have to love the Boeing 717 with its classic look - Photo: Aero Icarus | FlickrCC

You have to love the Boeing 717 with its classic look – Photo: Aero Icarus | FlickrCC

UNITED AIRLINES FLAGSHIP: CRJ-737 Dreamliner Jumbo Jet XWB?!

The cover photo for United's Twitter account is a Boeing 737. Weird - Screenshot: Twitter.com

The cover photo for United’s Twitter account is a Boeing 737. Weird – Screenshot: Twitter.com

Oh United… you are the weird one. Not sure if that is good or bad. For years United has used the 747 in so much of their marketing. Now with the aircraft retired from their fleet, maybe they are still trying to fill that gap. I say that because at the time I looked for this story, they are using a Boeing 737-800 for their Twitter and Facebook cover photos. Kind of snoozer town, USA.

One of the scrolling stories on UA's front page has a not super great quality photo of a 787 Dreamliner - Screenshot: United.com

One of the scrolling stories on UA’s front page has a not super great quality photo of a 787 Dreamliner – Screenshot: United.com

The front page does have a 787, but it is a bit hidden and not super obvious to most people what kind of plane it is. Not quite at the flagship level.

Let's add a little CRJ action to the flagship mix - Screenshot: United.com

Let’s add a little CRJ action to the flagship mix – Screenshot: United.com

I thought I was on to something when I saw (and clicked) on the “Our Fleet” tab on the homepage. A nice little welcome message popped up talking about their new Bombardier CRJ-550 configuration. Okay, but I want to see the fleet. I clicked on the “Learn more” link but it took me to a page just about the CRJ-550. The page is pretty cool (and worth a visit), but it didn’t help me in my flagship quest. I had to track down UA’s real fleet page a different way (I feel like the tab should say “Our CRJ-550” and not “Our Fleet.”)

Hello Dreamliner! - Screenshot: United.com

Hello Dreamliner! – Screenshot: United.com

On top of the fleet page is the 787 Dreamliner. I am curious what United will put as their flagship when they finally take delivery of their Airbus A350 (2027 as of now).

AIRLINE FLAGSHIP CONCLUSION

Sure, there are other U.S. airlines, but I think most of them are pretty obvious since their fleet isn’t super diverse. I actually went into this thinking it would be pretty obvious, but I was quite excited to see that things weren’t as straight forward as I thought they might be. I enjoyed looking these up, so don’t be too surprised to see another story in the future looking at international airlines. I would love to see how airlines operating both the 747-8I and A380 handle their flagship.

Do you agree with my super scientific conclusions? Would you choose a different aircraft to be your flagship if you ran any of these (or other airlines)? Did I miss a US airline that I should have covered? Share your thoughts in the comments.

EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me: [email protected]

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10 Comments

The AA flagship is their 777-300ER. It has their Flagship First product onboard… it is in the name 😛

Hmm… you make a good point Mal. I was actually thinking of (trying) to be funny and say that the flagship was the 787 and their Flagship Lounges. But it sounded kinda lame, so I didn’t go that route. However, going the 777 and the lounges b/c of the “flagship” name totally would have worked. Next time!

David

Thanks for the walk down memory lane. If you haven’t been to the resurrected TWA building at JFK airport you would LOVE it and must go. They also have a ‘Connie’ plane you can have cocktails in (the Lockheed Constellation). Then go out on the TWA hotel’s outdoor lounge deck and plane spot. Fun. Fun. Fun.

Hey J,

I REALLY want to go, but haven’t been able t make it over to NYC since it opened. We did have one of our great writers, Manu, take a tour: https://www.airlinereporter.com/2019/12/jfk-twa-hotel/. What makes it even cooler is my grandfather used to fly Connies (although for Eastern), so hoping to get my dad and I up there to check it out!

David

Thomas D Holser

Back in 1966 at age 11 I set up a travel agency in my bedroom as a hobby. It was with great excitment that in 1970 I was invited to a special travel agents preview of the brand new TWA Boeing 747 at Los Angeles International Airport. Although we were not allowed a free flight, to this day I remember what an amazing FLAGSHIP aircraft the TWA 747-100 was! Thank you for the excellent article.

Hello Thomas,

Thank you for sharing that story — that sounds amazing! I couldn’t imagine being 11yrs old and being invited to an event like that. Even today, at 39, when I get invited to fun airline stuff, I feel like I am a giddy kid :). Do you have any photos that you took of that day?

Cheers, David

Thomas Holser

Hi David, Thanks for the note today. My late father was a geologist so as a kid in the 60s our family traveled to unique places.

In 1966 I flew with my dad to Russia for an international geology conference. Travel to Russia back then was like going to North Korea today. We flew LAX-JFK American 707 Flagship (the plane even had TV every 3 rows which showed stations we flew over), then Sabena 707 JFK to Brussels and finally Aerofloat Illusion Brussels to Moscow.

Upon my return home, at age 11 in 1966, I loved traveling so much my dad brought me home the giant OAG airline book. I typed out a letter and sent it to 100+ airlines around the world simply saying I opened a new travel agency and asked to be on their mailing list.

For the next several years I would get a giant stack of mail daily as the airlines gave my address to cruise lines, hotels, etc

I set up a filing system and booked trips for family and friends. While attending USC School of Business in LA in the early 70s my career path was an executive in the music business- record labels, management and touring logistics working with hundreds of artists.

I must say my early fascination with airlines and travel were critical to a successful career in the music industry.

And yes the trip to LAX was truly amazing. It was the very first 747 to be at LAX. And the only purpose that day was to introduce all of the southern California travel agents and media to the FLAGSHIP TWA 747. All the VPs from TWA were there, and to tour the plane you had to have the invite.

I was given permission to take a day off from Junior High School!

Anyways thought you enjoy the background story. Most importantly THANK YOU for producing the remarkable website, I really appreciate and enjoy it.

Anthony T

About the Southwest flagship, all they fly is Boeing 737s of various models. This clearly a -800. Not a Max8.

As a Southwest employee, I think you handled our flagship expertly. Well done, Sir.

Hey Colin,

Well, I think my first draft had the 737-800, but that was super boring and no way funny — this works out way better 🙂

David

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