The European landmass is not particularly large compared to that of other continents. However, several of its constituent countries spread their jurisdictions far and wide across the globe, a legacy of centuries of overseas expansion.
Europe’s overseas territories, most of them islands, are scattered pretty much all over the world, some of them many thousands of miles away from their mainland, and they all have their own specific needs when it comes to aviation.
So, it comes as no surprise that, despite being relatively small in terms of territory or population, many of these islands have been able to create support airlines of their own to ensure internal communications as well as air links with their own country’s mainland and the often much closer neighboring countries.
While typically classified as regional carriers, some of these airlines have been growing considerably over the last few years, often with the support or in close cooperation with the local tourism organizations. Many of them have not only maintained their status as key players in their local markets but expanded into other geographies as well.
But who are they? Which islands and regions do they serve? And how are they doing in the current market environment?
Before we begin, just a couple of notes. We have focused only on those cases in which the islands are not a sovereign state, thus Icelandic, Irish and Maltese airlines are not included. We have also focused only on the major carriers, defined as those airlines that operate jet aircraft fleets and fly to destinations outside of their own home territory.
From the North Atlantic to the southern seas, AeroTime takes a closer look at the airlines of Europe’s overseas territories.
Binter Canarias, Canary Islands (Spain)
The Canary Islands are one of Europe’s top tourist destinations.
Zoom into Flightradar24 any day of the year and you will see an almost continuous line of aircraft trickling along the coast of West Africa, on their way to or from one of the seven volcanic islands that make up this Spanish archipelago.
Binter Canarias was started in the late 1980s as an Iberia subsidiary offering inter-island services with a small turboprop fleet. The airline, which was the spin-off from the Spanish flag carrier and acquired by private investors, has since seen considerable growth.
While flights between the different islands of the Canarian archipelago remain the core business of Binter Canarias, the carrier has been busy expanding both its fleet and its geographical footprint.
As of 2023 Binter operates a fleet of 33 aircraft, the majority of which (27) are variants of the ATR-72 turboprop. But since 2019, it has also been operating a fleet of five Embraer E195 E2 jets. These jets have allowed Binter to enter longer distance markets and launch flights between the Canary Islands and several destinations in Europe, not just in mainland Spain but also in France and Italy. The carrier also serves destinations in West Africa.
Azores Airlines (SATA Air Açores), Azores Islands, Portugal
The Azores is an autonomous region of Portugal composed of nine volcanic islands located pretty much in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Aviation has played an important role on the islands since the Second World War.
During the war, the islands provided an ideal base for allied submarine-hunting aircraft to patrol the vital Atlantic Ocean sea lanes that brought troops and supplies from America to the European frontlines.
It was during these years that the kernel of what would become SATA Air Açores (the parent company of Azores Airlines) began to take shape.
Initially a local airline operating inter-island services, the creation of SATA Internacional (now Azores Airlines) in the 1990s considerably increased the connectivity of the islands.
Taking advantage of the mid-ocean location of its home base, Azores Airlines can offer connections to both Europe and North America, where a significant number of emigrés from the Azores live.
While in the past it had operated wide-body aircraft such as the A330 and A310 (it was one of the last European operators of the type before retiring it in 2018), Azores Airlines currently has a fleet of eight A320-family aircraft, three A320s, and five A321s (of which three are of the LR longer-range version). The airline also has an additional A321LR on order. Azores Airlines’ sister carrier, SATA Air Açores operates an additional six aircraft: two Bombardier Dash 8 Q200 and four Dash 8 Q400 turboprops.
Despite the many tourist attractions boasted by the islands and its strategic geographical location, the airline’s finances do not look great. As recently as June 2022, the European Union approved a €453M support package to keep the airline afloat and, in March 2023, the government of the Azores region started a privatization process and began taking bids for the airline.
Atlantic Airways, Faroe Islands, Denmark
This autonomous Danish territory in the North Sea, roughly equidistant between Scotland, Iceland and Norway, has become a popular tourist destination thanks to its (very Instagrammable) natural beauty.
Tourism has been seen as a way to diversify an economy that is dependent on more than 80% of fish exports. Local airline Atlantic Airways contributes to the growth of tourism in the Faroes with its fleet of three A320-family aircraft, two of which are the neo variant, and has two more on order. This is no small capacity for the airline of an archipelago with a population of barely 50,000.
Atlantic Airways’ aircraft are equipped with navigation technology called RNP AR 0.1 which is particularly suited for operations to and from the Faroes.
Not only does the airline link the islands to several European destinations as far as the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands, but it is also planning to launch the first nonstop flights between the Faroes and the United States at some point in 2023.
Atlantic Airways also operates two helicopters for flights within the islands.
Air Greenland, Greenland, Denmark
Also under Danish sovereignty, although enjoying a large degree of autonomy, Greenland is the largest island in the world (that is, if you consider Australia a continent in its own right).
The country’s name may have been a marketing ploy by its first Nordic settlers, which hoped to attract more immigrants from the Old World, because most of Greenland is in fact white due to the huge icesheets that cover most of its territory. The local airline, however, paints its aircraft bright red.
Air Greenland, which is owned by the government of Greenland, operates a rather impressive fleet (when adjusted by population) of 28 aircraft, 19 of which are helicopters that serve multiple scattered communities and outposts on the fringes of the icesheet.
The remainder of the fleet is made of eight turboprops which service local communities, as well as one Airbus A330-800neo (Air Greenland is one of only three operators of this variant worldwide) which ensures the regular link between Nuuk, Air Greenland’s main hub and the Danish capital, Copenhagen.
Interestingly, Air Greenland has shown an early enthusiasm for advanced air mobility. In 2022 it was announced that the airline would be collaborating with British eVTOL developer Vertical Aerospace and leasing company Avolon to evaluate the use of electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft as a clean and cost-effective alternative for regional flights within Greenland.
Airlines of the French islands
As the European country with the largest number of overseas territories, France also boasts quite a few “insular” airlines, some of which are a considerable size.
Air Corsica, Corsica, France
Although technically part of the French mainland and not considered an overseas territory, the “Island of Beauty” has its own locally based airline and could not be missed of this list.
Air Corsica currently operates six A320 jets and six ATR turboprop aircraft (five of them of the –72 version and one a smaller –42) turboprops. It flies from Corsica’s four international airports, Ajaccio, Bastia, Calvi and Figari, to a whole range of destinations mostly in France but also across the rest of Europe.
It cooperates with Air France and ITA Airways, codesharing on some routes.
Air Austral, Réunion, France
France has several territories in the Indian Ocean, with the island of La Réunion being the largest and most populated of these.
The local carrier, Air Austral, operates across this whole region and beyond with a fleet that combines wide-body long-haul aircraft (three Boeing 777s and two Boeing 787s) and single-aisle aircraft (three Airbus A220s and one Boeing 737-800).
Its route network is quite diverse, covering the neighboring African countries, mainland France, several destinations in Asia, such as Bangkok and Chennai, and Australia. It also includes a domestic flight to the French island of Mayotte.
The islands that dot Air Austral’s home region are also known as the “Vanilla Islands”, and this is the origin of the Vanilla Alliance, a partnership agreement that linked Air Austral and four other airlines of this region, Air Madagascar, Air Mauritius, Air Seychelles, and Int’Air Îles of the Comoros. At the time it was signed in 2015, it was the fourth largest airline alliance in the world after the three major ones, OneWorld, Star Alliance and SkyTeam.
EWA Air, Mayotte, France
Mayotte, the only island of the Comoros archipelago that chose to remain French after independence, is home to EWA Air, a small airline that operates two ATR-72-600 and a Boeing 737-800 to destinations in the Comoros, Madagascar, Tanzania and Mozambique, in addition to the French island of La Réunion. Air Austral has a majority stake in EWA Air.
Air Tahiti Nui, French Polynesia, France
The names of Tahiti and Polynesia may conjure images of pristine southern seas, and this may not be totally off the mark.
In fact, Air Tahiti Nui takes great care to cultivate this image, catering to visitors who travel to this far-flung overseas French territory in search of the bliss of the tropics.
Air Tahiti Nui operates a fleet of four brightly painted Boeing 787-9 aircraft that ensure the connections between Papeete and France, the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
The flights to and from Paris usually make a stopover in either Los Angeles (LAX) or Seattle-Tacoma (SEA), two airports where its partner Alaska Airlines operates.
However, in March 2020, due the pandemic restrictions making the US stopover impossible, Air Tahiti Nui operated nonstop between Paris Charles-de-Gaulle (CDG) and Papeete, setting a record for the longest regular commercial flight ever – and a domestic one at that!
Aircalin, New Caledonia, France
Polynesia is not the only French territory in the south Pacific. New Caledonia also has its own airline, Air Calédonie International, most usually referred to as Aircalin.
It operates one A320neo, two DHC-6 Twin Otters and two A330-900 aircraft. The latter ensure the air links between this territory and several key international gateways in Asia, such as Singapore and Seoul, as well as Australia and other nations in the Pacific.
Aircalin also operates French domestic flights to Wallis and Futuna and French Polynesia.
Air Caraïbes, Guadaloupe, France
Based in the French Antilles and owned by the Groupe Dubreuil, a French conglomerate, Air Caraïbes is quite a large player in the Europe to the Caribbean leisure travel market.
It operates a fleet of six Airbus A350s and three A330s, as well as three ATR-72-600s for inter-islands regional flights.
Although not based in the Caribbean, the Groupe Dubreuil owns another airline, called French Bee, which flies mainly long-haul leisure routes between mainland France and the US and French overseas territories operating a fleet of six Airbus A350 aircraft.