Virtual Airlines (VAs) are a huge part of online aviation, and an extremely popular way of staying connected with other members of the simulation world. Just like communities, Virtual Airlines come in all shapes and sizes. You’ll find simulations of major, international airlines and small, commuter operations. Some are complete with training, tests, and ranks while others are more casual.
Some Virtual Airlines use the same name and branding as real airlines, while others are entirely fictional. Often, they’ll even create their own liveries that only Virtual Airline pilots are able to download.
In many cases, Virtual Airlines operate independently. This means you can log VA flights while offline, or while flying with ATC and/or with friends as part of an online network.
In general, the concept of a Virtual Airline blends your own simulator with the airline’s operations. With a Virtual Airline, your flying has a “purpose”. You may be assigned certain routes or have the option to choose from available routes. In some cases, you’ll need to work your way up the seniority list before you can fly certain aircraft.
One of the popular VA software platforms is smartCARS, by TFDi Design. The software runs alongside your simulator to track the flying you do for Virtual Airlines you’re part of.
Using smartCARS, a VA pilot can track every flight. This helps give flying a “purpose”, and allows you to stay closely connected to other members of your VA.
Image source: TFDi Design Website
Normally, VA pilots install free software that runs alongside your simulator to “log” your flight as part of the VA's operation. The software tracks elements such as landing rates, duration of flight, smoothness of aircraft operation, and accuracy to your assigned flight plan. The VA will give you a score after your flight has been completed and in some cases posts the results to a virtual airline leaderboard. In some cases, you can earn (or be docked) virtual dollars for completing flights.
Because of the natural connection between ATC and airliner flying, you’ll find many Virtual Airlines active on the major flight simulation networks. In addition, most Virtual Airlines have a social component like group flights, special events, or just talk with friends mid-flight in forums, Discord communities, and the other social networking platforms.
You'll need to do some research to find which Virtual Airline is right for you: there are lots to choose from and they offer different types of flying styles. In addition to a simple Google Search, a great place to find VAs is by searching the IVAO and VATSIM websites. TFDi Design, creators of the popular smartCARS software, also maintains a curated list of recommended Virtual Airlines.