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Flight Numbers Explained: How Airlines Decide Route Numbers

Sitting in a bright corner office of the ninth floor of Chicago’s Willis Tower, Patrick Quayle, VP of international network at United Airlines, beams as I walk in to meet him. Earlier this month, United Airlines announced new service between Newark and Cape Town, South Africa, one of the first carriers in the United States to ever offer that route, and the airline’s only service into sub-Saharan Africa. We’re here to talk not necessarily about why United chose that route, but how the route… ( More...

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Ken Germani 5
Probably the most iconic flight numbers were PA001 and PA002 for Pan Am's round-the-world service.
Interesting. I have noticed that some AAL domestic flights carry the same flight number in both directions, so a MIA-RDU and RDU-MIA (returning with the same a/c and crew I think) carries just one flight number. Not sure of the reason but noticed this last year.
James Steiner 2
Something to do with not running out of flight numbers. AA used to run 1158 FLL-PAP and PAP-FLL on the AM flight and 22 77 both ways when they had the PM FLL-PAP flight. Not sure were flight 1158 and 2277 go now
"Not sure were flight 1158 and 2277 go now"

Uhmmmmm, this is the Flightaware website, it's not too hard to find out...
Seems to be quite a common thing for them. In my home country, they used 2703 for both the MIA-POS and return POS-MIA legs.
Farnk 1
Similarly, my favorite to Aruba AUA from Philly PHL and back, both flights AA870.
George Cottay 4
Interesting piece. Thanks, James.
canuck44 2
Flights with similar sounding numbers that can be confused by controllers during a particular time block are avoided and a number combination may be reassigned if necessary.
James Simms 5
That’s how the callsign Air Force One came about. “[President] Eisenhower took a round-trip flight to Charlotte, N.C., on May 18, 1954, to give an address for Charlotte Freedom Celebration Day. With Columbine II at 19,000 feet over Richmond, Va., Draper checked in with the air route traffic control center as Air Force 8610, the call sign based on the plane’s tail number. When the center acknowledged the call, an Eastern Air Lines pilot whose call sign included the numbers 8610 asked if the center was trying to contact him.
In a 2012 interview, Thomas told Spiers that a Secret Service agent on the plane noted the confusion and thought the president’s plane should have a unique call sign. The agent later arranged a meeting at then-Washington National Airport that included Draper and officials from the Civil Aviation Authority (the FAA’s precursor), Air Force, Secret Service and the White House.
Draper “cited this as the reason why we needed a more positive control system,” Thomas said in a 1984 documentary about Air Force One. “And he recommended that we use Air Force One for the call sign of an airplane when it had the president on board.”“
Ciaran Chu 1
Or they could go with the system that is used in Europe and the Middle East and assign ATC callsigns that include letters as well to avoid confusion (BA833 = Speedbird 38-Delta-Bravo).

The majority of European ATC callsigns no longer correspond with the flight number on the passenger boarding pass. It's much safer.
siriusloon 0
That's why flights have more than just a number. It's not flight 1, it's BA1, for example.
Chris B 2
BA1 call out is "Speedbird 1".
ken young 1
many carriers have nicknames that ATC use. MY guess this is done for brevity and clarity.
For example, Mainline US Airways flights were referred to as
"Cactus"..A reference to their merger with Phoenix Based America West.
Also, US Airways regional flights operated by US Airways, as opposed to an affiliate( Mesa, Air Wisconsin, Atlantic Southeast, etc) were referred to as "Piedmont".
I hope they other duties because I don't believe that should fill the workday for two men and a computer! But who knows.
granitelocal 1
The airlines also change flight numbers when they conflict with other airlines’ flight numbers that arrive or depart at the same destination at the same time. In a busy environment pilots can confuse voice clearances from controllers. You don’t want both American 509 to accept United 509’s clearance to descend to 5,000 feet at ORD, for example. It happens.
Geoff Davies 1
I thought flight numbers were just what they use when available with the airline name at the front.interesting story
James Simms 1
Delta uses 8800-8900 series for sports charters. 8883 is for the Atlanta Braves & 8900 is for The University of Alabama football charters
jwmson 1
Long ago, Delta assigned blocks of flight numers based on aircraft type. DC-8 has 800 series numbers for example.
No Name 1
He forgot to mention that most unique flight number in the U.S.: American Airlines daily flight 1776 at 5:30 pm PHL-BOS and back at 7:47 pm (formerly a USAir flight).
Tom Cain 1
As a witness to AA191, you don’t see that any longer. DL191 was a bad one when I lived in Dallas also.
Fred Mew 1
I remember “American 777”... a DC10 from DFW to LAS. Those were the good ‘ol days!
Chris B -6
Newark is a mess and a really ugly welcome mat to visitors from overseas. United via Newark was an unwelcome shock in comparison to Lufthansa to Germany. United is so bad.
...and if you get a limo into NYC you get ripped off by the driver who charges you both the toll to come out and the toll to go back - even though hes dropped someone from NYC 20 minutes ago and done the same to them.
John Verbil 3
Not really. Tolls are charged inbound to NYC only. There are no tolls outbound from the city.
ken young 1
However, if the cab or limo ride is from KFRG, KJFK or KLGA into Manhattan, the tolls on the MTA bridges and tunnels ARE collected in both directions.
The taxi or Limo MUST return to the airport to pick up the next fare, So yes, the toll is paid by the fare because but for the trip booked or requested , the car would not travel to Manhattan.


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