There are real airlines and there are fictional ones. Fake airlines lie in between: they pretend to be real, but have never conducted a flight in their lifetime.
A few of them are outright scams, intended to extract money without providing any services. Others market themselves as airlines, yet in reality are just cover-ups for some other (usually illegal) activities.
There is also the third kind of fake airlines: the ones that tried to be real, but failed due to some circumstances, usually a colossal incompetence of everybody involved in their creation.
All of these reasons can be intermixed and sometimes it is difficult to understand what really drove their creation. But let’s agree on one thing: although the world would be way better off without them, their stories are often fascinating and provide ample material for learning.
Two conditions have to be met for an airline to be considered fake:
It must – in its marketing or by other means – pretend to be a real airline, operating in the real world, offering passenger and/or cargo services to regular customers.
It must have never conducted a real, commercial flight.
Fictional airlines, shown in films or other media, do not count as fake unless they try to have a presence in the real world. Virtual airlines that simulate the works of real companies for entertainment or research purposes should not be counted too.
So, here are ten airlines that we found to be the most interesting for one or another reason.
10. Sunrise Airways
It may be not the first fake airline out there, but it was definitely the first one that established the pattern which plagued web-savvy travelers for years to come.
In 1995 – back when the Internet was this new shiny thing – a website popped up, telling about the new European low-cost airline that offered tickets for slightly lower price than one could realistically expect. It was not registered and had no aircraft of its own. Although virtual airlines – companies that chartered their entire workforce and airplanes from other companies – had existed for decades, Sunrise Airways raised suspicion.
It had a name similar to another, already existing company (Sunrise Air from Taiwan) and was based in Hungary. Little information on other aspects of its operation can be found nowadays, except for the fact that no flights took place, and most likely, there was no intention to conduct them in the first place. After some American TV networks ran segments debunking the carrier’s operations, the website closed and the company disappeared, leaving some disgruntled travelers and a lot of questions.
9. Germany AirLines / Germani Airways
A long-gone webpage (Image: Blick.ch)
Possibly the bearer of the most generic and ungoogleable name ever, Germany AirLines – with their sister company Germani Airways – were typical examples of a well-planned fraud. Both companies appeared in the summer of 2018, seemingly based in Switzerland, and complete with well-designed website, presence in social media, and other attributes of real services. One could buy tickets from Basel (BSL) to Kosovo from them and the price was not unrealistic, although small enough to attract attention. At least several unsuspecting Swiss individuals took the bait.
After receiving a fake ticket, two days before the supposed flight customers were notified that their trip was cancelled. The refund was coming soon, the note said. Needless to say, the money never came and any attempts to reach the company yielded no results.
A couple of months later, websites disappeared, Facebook pages got abandoned, and customer service phones stopped answering. Scammers collected their bounty and vanished, leaving people without money. Swiss consumer protection services immediately started an investigation and tracked both supposed airlines to some German-based company run by individuals of Kosovan origin. There is no information on any further developments yet.
8. Skyline Airways
Recognize the livery? It’s an image of Air Berlin (AB1) aircraft, retouched to add Skyline name, and uploaded to their social media page (Image: Instagram / Numerama)
Skyline Airways is a French twist on the Sunrise Airways formula, but with bells and whistles. It gained notoriety in 2019, after a famous TV show promoted their wonderful services and remarkable prices. As people started registering for flights, several discrepancies appeared. The company was offering trips on its own aircraft, but had none of them registered. The airline had no IATA code and no certificate to operate. Those who booked their flights received no confirmation emails and did not hesitate to file complaints with authorities.
A few days later, as the buzz was getting louder, the company’s manager – who presented himself as the CEO, but apparently was not one – appeared on public television claiming that all accusations were false. According to him, the airline was going to lease its aircraft from charter companies, confirmations were not sent because of problems with the website, and there was no need to be an alarmist.
Apparently, there was a reason to be an alarmist. In the end, no flights were conducted, the authorities cracked down on scammers and the whole affair became yet another, slightly more famous example of airline-based fraud.
7. MOM Air
MOM Air has all the features of aforementioned frauds – striking similarity to existing real airlines (in this case – recently defunct WOW air), a website and social media presence claiming to sell tickets, and neither registration nor real aircraft. Yet, it is not a fraud, and was not aiming to pray on unsuspecting passengers.
It was an art piece by an Icelandic artist Oddur Eysteinn Friðriksson, which rose to prominence in late 2020. MOM Air’s image, in a striking yet subtle way, made fun of all the features of contemporary low-cost airlines – from their over the top marketing (“We are here to make a revolution”) to aggressive no-frills policy (life vests and toilet paper were offered for additional price). It mocked a cynical approach to COVID-19 pandemic, fashionable exploitation of “wokeness” by large companies, and made it all in a wonderfully deadpan way typical of Nordic humor.
Strangely, despite the amplitude of red flags, many people took the project seriously. “I received dozens of complaints, thousands of booking requests, thousands of followers on Instagram, multiple job applications, thousands of comments, global coverage reaching millions, influencer cooperation, company sponsorship, multiple service offers, and more!” said Friðriksson on November 19, 2020, presenting his project at Iceland University of the Arts.
6. Oceanic Airlines / Oceanic Airways
The only purely fictional carrier on this list, Oceanic Airlines goes way further than such “brands” as Trans-American Airlines (A1G) (AAL) (from the 1980 cult comedy Airplane!) or Windsor Airlines (from 1990 action flick Die Hard 2). It first appeared in the mid-1960s, and since then served as a placeholder for an airline in dozens of films, TV shows, video games, and comic books.
Its rise to stardom was cemented by TV show Lost (2004-2010), whose promotional material included a website, a short commercial, press releases and other things that made the events presented in the show that much more real. For a while, it was very hard to believe that Oceanic Airlines is made up, and you cannot take a flight from Sydney to Los Angeles onboard their aircraft.
5. LoneStar Air
There were, in fact, three loosely connected airlines with similar names: LoneStar Airways, LoneStar and Lone Star Air. All of them from Liberia, and none of them real (at least yet).
The first one operated in the heat of Liberian civil war between 2002 and 2003, had one airplane, and was a front for a weapons smuggling plot. Its sole Boeing 727-200 had carried tons of weaponry bought on the black market, circumventing an international blockade, before the UN found out and stopped the whole thing.
The second one opened several years later, had a website and tried to sell tickets to regional flights that were going to start “soon”. A Sunrise Airways type of affair, it went away quietly and it is unclear how many people got scammed.
The third one was announced with a grand ceremony in the Liberia’s largest airport in late 2020. It is not yet registered, its only planes are decorations on cakes presented at the ceremony, and it is unclear when – and if – it will ever fly. It also claims to be managed by Goldstar Air – another entrant of this list – which means that there is little hope for anything real there.
4. Puño Airlines
“Puño” is Spanish for “fist”, which may already shed a light on the nature of this affair. It was a sting operation by U.S. Marshals to arrest some suspicious individuals without making a fuss about it.
In 1985, over 200 criminals, ranging from drug lords to former Nazis in hiding, received letters saying they had won a free flight to the Bahamas, a weekend at a resort and a nice sum of money for daily spending. A fake booth was set up in Miami International Airport (MIA), with an ambush of marshals prepared to catch the criminals after they have passed the metal detector, preventing unwanted shootouts from happening.
14 fugitives actually caught the bait, showed up to claim their prize, and got arrested.
3. Goldstar Air
A different kind of fake airline, it was supposedly established in 2014. It is well recognizable from a photo of Boeing 777 with a Goldstar Air – Wings of Ghana livery clumsily added in, presumably, a free knock-off of Adobe Photoshop. Its website had everything you could ever want from a fake airline: a lengthy description complete with spelling mistakes of all kinds, a list of destinations with low-resolution stock photos of famous landmarks, even press releases written in the same unmistakable style of a person who thinks he knows English but might be overestimating his skills just a little bit.
Judging from those releases, the airline had connections (and conducted regular meetings) with Western African politicians, it even donated to some charities and won some awards of disputed reputation.
Only one thing is missing: flights. Goldstar Air never conducted them. It tried to apply for a certificate from aviation authorities numerous times, but failed at that. It claimed to have started a training program for its pilots, but there was no program. It announced a purchase of five aircraft, but none of them happened to be real.
Luckily, it did not try to sell fake tickets yet, although its advertisement campaign in 2016 prompted Ghana Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) to release a notice advising customers not to trust the company.
2. Global Ghana Airlines
It is quite likely that at some point (or even now) most people behind Goldstar Air believed that they were going to create a real airline, but failed. The thing is even more apparent with Global Ghana Airlines, another company which is actually based in the United States.
Created in 2016, it claims to conduct flights between Accra (ACC) and Chicago (ORD). There is even a booking system on their website, which works up until you actually try to book something. The website itself is – in contrast with many similar ones – competently made, and there are no glaring errors like spelling mistakes or watermarks on stock photos.
Since the launch of the supposed route in 2019, the company offered all kinds of excuses on why the flights are not happening, and Ben Schlappig from One Mile At A Time blog has actually conducted an interview with their founder, who seemed to genuinely believe that the airline is real.
As of writing of this article, for over two years now the Global Ghana Airlines is just about to launch their inaugural flight. Oh, also, here is a strangely creepy commercial they made:
1. Baltia / USGlobal Airways
Baltia is a legend, a meme, and the granddaddy of all the fake airlines out there. Could we put anything else in the first spot?
It all began in 1989, with a promise to start direct flights between the United States and the Soviet Union – something barely possible at the time. Since then, in its three-decades-long history, the company has purchased the flight certificate numerous times and had it revoked every time. It changed its business model from intercontinental carrier to the regional one and back. It purchased one Boeing 747-200 from Pakistan and painted it in the most generic livery you have ever seen, then left it to rot on the outskirts of Willow Run Airport (YIT) for a decade. It even organized an actual airshow.
Through those years, it did not conduct a single flight and did not earn a single dollar of revenue. Nevertheless, it managed to raise millions of dollars in capital: even decades into its miserly existence, someone somewhere managed to convince somebody to invest into it.
In 2017, the company rebranded itself as USGlobal Airways, and moved its operations to another airport. The change did not prompt it to sway from the routine of having no operations whatsoever. At this point it was completely unclear what actually drove the company – malicious intent or complete incompetence of its founders. Possibly, it was both.
Finally, in 2018, its SEC registration was revoked, meaning that the airline would no longer be able to sell stock. Judging from abandoned social media pages and no longer functioning website, that did the job, and Baltia is – sadly – no longer with us. But it will always remain in the hearths of all airline geeks worldwide, as a little airline that could not.