The Wonderful World of Virtual Airlines

As I’ve been writing about the flight simulation hobby for just over 10 years, I’ve covered the topic of virtual airlines a few times.  However, with the release of the brand new Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020 the doors of our hobby have been swung wide open and we’re seeing hundreds, thousands and even perhaps tens of thousands of brand new flight simmers arriving into our hobby.  As a matter of fact, Microsoft recently released some statistics regarding just how many individual users have been flying MSFS2020.  Care to wager a guess as to how many have spent some time with the new flight sim?  As of 3 September, over 1 million unique users have used the new sim and recorded over 1 billion flight miles.  WOW.  You can read more about these statistics here

Of course, within these numbers are individual YouTube content creators and Twitch Live streamers who were given a copy of MSFS2020 (some even a full setup with yoke, rudder pedals etc.) who spent a bit of time and will never, ever return.  But I digress…

What is a Virtual Airline and Do I need to join one?

Virtual Airlines or VA’s for short, are essentially online clubs or groups which are formed to represent one or more real world airlines.  In some cases a VA might represent a completely fictional airline, but most will emulate a real world airline in some form.  The majority of VA’s I’ve been associated with will also operate under a ranking system whereby you’ll work your way up from smaller aircraft as you accumulate flight hours.  However, this may not always be the case.  Finally, each VA should have an established set of rules which will need to be followed to remain in active status.  I’ll discuss this a bit later.

have been around for over two decades and perhaps even longer.  I’ve told the story about my friend and I who both had Commodore 64 computers in the mid 80’s.  We both owned Flight Simulator for the C64 and we both tracked our flights, shared our numbers with each other.  On at least a few occasions, we came together in the same location with each of our C64’s and flew from point A to point B.  One could argue this was a virtual airline, but thankfully the world of VA’s have vastly improved since the days of a Big Chief tablet and a number 2 pencil.  Of course, a VA is much more than just tracking flights and accumulating hours. 

Virtual airlines began to appear in the mid to late 90’s, however I’ve heard of VA’s existing on AOL, CompuServe and other online BBS systems even before the internet became what it is today.  The first internet VA I joined was in the 1998 timeframe.  At this time the websites were often crudely designed and there was very little in the form of automation.  PIREPS (Pilot Reports) were often just a web form which needed to be reviewed by the hub manager and then he/she would update the roster.  It was all a manual process. Today’s more modern VA’s will offer completion automation in the form of an ACAR’s application that tracks all elements of the flight and will automagically file the PIREP once you’ve safely arrived at your destination and parked at the gate. 

The heart of any good VA is its people and management team.  In the almost 25 years I’ve been flying for internet based virtual airlines, I’ve flown for some of the best and a few of the worst.  While a spiffy website and lots of bells and whistles might lead you to believe it to be a quality VA, some of the less shining examples have been some of the better ones I’ve experienced.   But as I’ve said, it really boils down to the members and the management team overseeing the operation. 

Have It Your Way

Depending on what you want from your virtual airline experience, you shouldn’t have an issue finding a VA that fits your flying style.  If you are new to the flight simulation hobby, I highly encourage you to find a VA that offers a rank structure and while I know everyone eventually wants to fly the heavies…you’ll appreciate the time, patience and personal rewards of starting out as a CAT 1 pilot and put your hours in.  After all, in the real world a brand new pilot doesn’t go from nothing to flying a Boeing 747 without first serving their time in a Boeing 737.  When I first began my VA career back in 2000 with an American Airlines VA, I served my time flying short hops of generally 1-2 hours in a Saab 340B and ATR-72.  After about 100 hours I was able to move up to the Fokker 100, MD-80 etc.  If memory serves, it wasn’t until I had racked up ~500 hours before I could fly the 777. 

Choices, Choices and even More Choices

Most will choose their VA based on airline preference, others might select a VA based on aircraft selection.  Some would rather transport boxes and cargo.  Regardless how you like your tea, you’ll certainly find what you’re looking for in the VA world.  Of course, some pilots will fly for more than one VA and there’s certainly nothing wrong with this pending you have the available time to meet your minimum requirements.

Speaking of Requirements

At a minimum, most VA’s will require you to fly at least two flights per month to remain in active status.  Some VA’s require more and some less.  Of course, most will allow a short LOA (leave of absence) to accommodate real life schedule conflicts.  However, keep in mind that some VA’s will limit the number of times per year that any pilot can request a LOA. 

Online vs. Offline Flying

Some VA’s may require all flights to be flown online.  While flying on the VATSIM or IVAO network may not be everyone’s cup of tea, flying online is an awesome experience and just simply can’t be duplicated by artificial ATC.  Yes, there is a significant learning curve to with VATSIM/IVAO.  These are not just online networks where one can connect and do whatever he/she pleases.  There is a structure and organization to flying online and is meant for serious virtual pilots.  If you are interested in learning more about flying online and specifically the VATSIM network, please read this.  

Misc

Virtual Airlines which use an ACARS type flight tracking system may have certain requirements regarding landing rate.  In other words, if you haven’t quite mastered the art of smooth landings you should probably practice, practice and practice some more until you can successfully land your aircraft as smooth as possible.  While I personally detest landing rate competitions and placing an importance around ultra low numbers.  A landing rate above 500 FPM in most situations will be regarded as a hard landing.  Anything above 750 in a jet is considered very hard and in the real life could actually cause damage to the aircraft and endanger the lives of passengers and crew.  VA’s who have policies around landing rate requirements may choose to reject a filed PIREP if the landing rate is high. 

Conclusion and Recommendations

Much like I stated in my “The Basics of VATSIM” tutorial (near the bottom), if you’ve reached this point and have realized joining a virtual airline seems more trouble than its worth, that really isn’t my intention.  Within the flight simulation hobby, I’m my most happiest when I’m flying for a VA as I enjoy the structure and the camaraderie which only a virtual airline can provide.  However, for the enjoyment of all….you will need to be prepared to follow the rules and as I’ve pointed out the rules (or lack thereof) will vary from VA to VA.  Failure to comply will only force the VA and their management team to quickly show you the door. 

I’m going to provide you a few recommendations based on my experiences over the past 20+ years.  I would encourage you to visit these VA websites and read their policy manuals, then choose the one that you fill best suits you. 

American virtual Airlines

American virtual Airlines, AvA earned the distinction of being the very first virtual airline to be affiliated with the VATSIM network.  It is also one of the oldest.  AvA requires all flights to be flown on the VATSIM network, requires two flights per month to remain active and requires pilots to adhere to a rank structure.  You really won’t find a better VA, and certainly not one representing American Airlines.  AvA allows pilots to fly any of the OneWorld partner flights which in addition to AAL offers the virtual pilots another dozen or so airlines to choose from.

Virtual United Airlines

Virtual United Airlines, vUAL is the premier VA representing the real world United Airlines.  vUAL does require a minimum of two flights per month, but does not require flights to be flown online.  However, you will need to use their ACARS program. 

Southwest virtual Airlines

If flying the Boeing 737 is your cup of tea, then you’ll find no better representation of Southwest Airlines than at SWAVirtual.  SWAVirtual requires one flight per month to remain active and does not require online flying (but highly encourages it).  A general knowledge exam is administered at the time of submitting an application. 

British Airways Virtual

BAVirtual has been around since 2000 and once held the distinction as being authorized by their real world counterpart, that being the real British Airways.  BAVirtual requires one flight per month and does not require online flights.  BAv does limit the number of pilots and therefore a waiting list might delay your application approval.  Much like SWAv, a general knowledge exam with a passing score is required at the time of submitting an application. 

UK Virtual

If you really don’t want to be tied down to just one airline, and you aren’t interested in joining multiple VA’s, then you might be interested in UK Virtual.  UK Virtual is the home to over 100 different airlines and over 20,000 schedules to choose from.  All the major airlines are available including freight carriers like Fedex, UPS and DHL.  UK Virtual does not require online flights, but of course highly encourages it.  There are no aircraft restrictions and basically you can fly for any of the airlines they feature and any of the aircraft within those airlines fleet.  UK Virtual offers many different tours around the world. 

Well, there you have it.  The above list of virtual airlines are some of the best you’ll find on the internet.  I’ve spent some time with each of them over the years.  

In Summary

At the top of this article I asked whether or not you need to join a virtual airline.  Hopefully by now you’ve figured out the answer to that question.  I can’t really tell you one way or the other as everyone has their own method of defining their own enjoyment factor.  In the 20+ years I’ve been flying, I’ve spent time flying with VA’s and I’ve spent time just doing my own thing.  For about three years I even operated my own fictional cargo based airline and built up the member community to over 100 active virtual pilots. 

Today I’m only flying for AvA and UK Virtual. These two VA’s give me exactly what I’m looking for.  AvA provides the structure I enjoy while belonging to a virtual airline and UK Virtual provides me the flexibility to more or less do whatever I want, whenever I want.  I’m really enjoying the UK Virtual tours at the moment and working my way through the first half of the Route 66 tour. 

If you have questions regarding VA membership, please drop me a note or head over to my Discord and message me.  I’d be happy to answer any questions.

Until next time…

Happy Flying!!!

Jerry

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