Airline mergers push art of numbering flights the way of the Concorde
In its day, the supersonic commercial airliner Concorde flew from London to New York as British Airways Flight 1.
May 18th, 2011
09:28 PM ET

Airline mergers push art of numbering flights the way of the Concorde

Most airlines assign flight numbers randomly, but every so often, a bit of whimsy makes its way into the schedule.

Southwest Airlines Flight 711 goes from San Antonio to Las Vegas in a wink to the craps tables, an airline spokeswoman said. Some flights to and from Philadelphia fly under 1776, the year the Declaration of Independence was signed in the City of Brotherly Love. And some flights to Columbus, Ohio, go by 1492, the year Italian explorer Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

“At Southwest, we try to have fun with everything we do,” the spokeswoman said. “We have a system built in-house that allows us to include or exclude flight numbers as we see fit, but we do assign certain numbers to certain flights for fun.”

Most airlines operate under a similar system, said Brett Snyder, who runs “Cranky Concierge” travel service and the “Cranky Flier” blog.

The occasional “legacy number” remains, such as American Airlines' Flight 1 from New York’s JFK airport to LAX, but “most of the stuff is pretty random,” he said.

“They used to have more fun with these things in the past,” Snyder said. “They try to keep with legacy systems when they can, but the airline mergers have thrown them into disarray. Every airline used to have a flight 1, but when you have a merger, which one do you keep?”

United Airlines pulled the merger card Wednesday when flight numbers 93 and 175 resurfaced briefly, despite having been retired after the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

A technical glitch occurred Monday, when a computer assigned those numbers to existing Continental Airlines flights, United spokesman Rahsaan Johnson said. United and Continental are the process of merging, and flights carry both United and Continental numbers, he said.

"It should not have happened, and we should have caught the mistake sooner than we did," Johnson said. The numbers will remain off the books, he said.

Like United, many airlines have a list of flight numbers they don’t use, usually because of their association with disasters, Snyder said.

Southwest probably has the most latitude, he said, because it doesn’t code share its flights with other airlines.

Even so, he said, the art of numbering flights appears to be going the way of the Concorde (which, by the way, was British Airways Flight 1, from London's Heathrow airport to JFK).

“It adds a nice little human touch when you get some of those flight numbers. Certain frequent fliers get nostalgic if they fly a lot on the same flight number. There’s something about it people tend to identify with,” he said.

“It’s a goofy nostalgia thing that doesn’t matter, but it’s an intangible.”

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soundoff (42 Responses)
  1. Simpleton

    LOL! You take off from London and fly into the New Year! Ha ha!

    May 18, 2011 at 11:49 pm | Report abuse |
    • guest925

      Interestingly, when the Concorde flew from London to New York, it would beat the time difference and arrive on local time before it took off. You could celebrate New Years twice, theoretically.

      May 19, 2011 at 1:15 am | Report abuse |
    • chuckycheeze

      why not fly from "Loldom to New Year" CNN.... huh? why not?

      May 19, 2011 at 3:55 am | Report abuse |
  2. glen124

    US Airways from PHX to IND is flight 500, as in the Indy500.......

    May 19, 2011 at 12:04 am | Report abuse |
  3. mako

    and who cares?

    May 19, 2011 at 12:05 am | Report abuse |
  4. Bill Wood

    I fly a lot .. over 100,000 miles a year for the last several years in a row. There is nothing "nostalgic" about flight numbers. The overwhelming majority of passengers could not care less. The tiny number that do are too few (and too weird) to warrant maintaining the system as it.

    May 19, 2011 at 2:02 am | Report abuse |
  5. Free Country

    You're living the American Dream

    May 19, 2011 at 2:32 am | Report abuse |
  6. Jason

    "How do planes get flight numbers?" Next on CNN "Where do babies come from?"

    May 19, 2011 at 6:11 am | Report abuse |
    • neena

      pwahahahha....:)

      May 19, 2011 at 6:51 am | Report abuse |
  7. hjt

    cant believe an af concorde mistaken with BA flight number!!!!!!

    May 19, 2011 at 7:37 am | Report abuse |
  8. Cricket

    @Philip:
    Yes, it is cool. Go back to Petticoat Junction, get on Steve's plane, and fly into the water tower. HE HE
    Pompous blowhard.

    May 19, 2011 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
  9. Richard

    I'll take two seats on Flight 69, please.

    May 19, 2011 at 9:47 am | Report abuse |
    • Been there

      AA flight 69 is from Madrid to Miami. I was just on it two weeks ago. Very dissapointing.

      June 8, 2011 at 11:08 pm | Report abuse |
  10. banasy

    Takes "fly United" to a whole new meaning, there..., eh, Richard?

    May 19, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Cory

    A little fact checking might have helped make the glaring error with a photo of an Air France concorde and a caption about a British Airways concorde less embarrassing. I am pretty sure that Air France flight 1 was a concorde flight from Paris to JFK. So just change the caption!

    May 19, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Report abuse |
  12. JACK

    It is amazing that some flight numbers/routings and approximate times exist for decades. Then of course every so often a legacy flight number changes. Agree that most passengers could care less, but it is also easy for regulars to punch up the flight numbers as they make their on-line reservations (as oppposed to calling a res agent ) I fly to HNL on a regular basis. For about a year AA discontinued the route, but the flight number was not reassigned. It was a glimmer of hope for us who lobbied to get the non-stop ORD-HNL reinstated. When it and the reciprocal flight 72 were reinstated with the original flight numbers -HOORAY!! I think United had a flight 711 to Las Vegas from Chicago at one time too.

    May 19, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Michael J. Green

    I was sad to see that United Airlines has given up Their Flight # 1 to Continental. Going to HNL on UAL #1 has been a long standing tradition to those of us in The Chicago area. On to American Airlines

    May 20, 2011 at 12:19 am | Report abuse |
  14. Ellis from Panama

    Merge, what a spended idea. I would like to merge with Southwest male airline stewart. Sounds BIG and ever so yummie.

    May 20, 2011 at 5:40 am | Report abuse |
  15. Nk123

    Jetblue 777 from Boston to Las Vegas
    Lucky lucky lucky!

    May 21, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Report abuse |
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