A legacy carrier, in the United States, is an airline that had established interstate routes by the time of the route liberalization which was permitted by the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 and was thus directly affected by that act. It is distinct from a low-cost carrier (a term fostered as a form of disparagement against post deregulation start-up air carriers, and the traditional airlines' once heavily unionized work groups), which in the United States are generally new airlines that were started to compete in the newly deregulated industry.
A typical characteristic of legacy carriers is that they usually provide higher quality services than a low-cost carrier; for example, a legacy carrier typically offers first class and business class seating, a frequent-flyer program, and exclusive airport lounges. Many legacy carriers are also members of an airline alliance through which it has partner carriers that agree to provide these services to their own passengers as well. Also, legacy carriers generally have better cabin services, such as meal service and in-flight entertainment.
Since the Deregulation Act and subsequent Chapter 11 bankruptcy, many legacy carriers have folded or merged with other carriers. Those that survived now benefit from the fact that low-cost carriers no longer hold large cost advantages over the major legacy airlines. There are currently four US-based legacy airlines left that operate transcontinental and overseas route networks. That number will shrink to three once American Airlines and US Airways complete their merger, most likely in 2015.
American legacy carriers
- Delta Air Lines
- American Airlines/US Airways - subsidiaries of American Airlines Group pending a merger of the two airlines.
- United Airlines
- Alaska Airlines
- Hawaiian Airlines
Defunct American legacy carriers
- Continental Airlines, merged with United in 2011; brand retired in 2012
- Western Airlines, merged with Delta
- Trans World Airlines, merged with American, 2001
- Pan American World Airways, collapsed in 1991 followed by several unsuccessful resurrections. Latest plan is to restart as a charter and low-cost carrier in 2014.
- Northwest Airlines, merged with Delta in 2008; brand retired in early 2010 as it completed its merger with Delta
- National Airlines (NA)
- Eastern Air Lines
- Braniff International Airways
Legacy carriers outside the USA
Legacy carriers with domestic and international routes are also based in other countries around the world. These airlines include Air Canada, British Airways, Air France, Lufthansa (Germany), South African Airways, Aerolineas Argentinas, Varig (Brazil), Qantas (Australia), and Air New Zealand.
- "Legacy vs low-cost carriers: Spot the difference". The Economist.
- "‘Low cost’ vs. ‘legacy airlines’". KPMG.