Buffeting flow on transonic aerofoils serves as a model problem for the more complex three-dimensional flows responsible for aeroplane buffet. The origins of transonic aerofoil buffet are linked to a global instability, which leads to shock oscillations and dramatic lift fluctuations. The problem is analysed using the Reynolds-averaged Navier–Stokes equations, which for the foreseeable future are a necessary approximation to cover the high Reynolds numbers at which transonic buffet occurs. These equations have been shown to reproduce the key physics of transonic aerofoil flows. Results from global-stability analysis are shown to be in good agreement with experiments and numerical simulations. The stability boundary, as a function of the Mach number and angle of attack, consists of an upper and a lower branch – the lower branch shows features consistent with a supercritical bifurcation. The unstable modes provide insight into the basic character of buffeting flow at near-critical conditions and are consistent with fully nonlinear simulations. The results provide further evidence linking the transonic buffet onset to a global instability.