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Those four-digit flight designations? Their days may be numbered

Those four-digit flight designations? Their days may be numbered
Airlines are running out of four-digit numbers for flight designations, but their computer systems are hard-coded for no more than four digits. (MarioGuti / Getty Images/iStockphoto)

American's Flight 1776 to Philadelphia? Hilarious.

Southwest's Flight 1492 to Columbus, Ohio? Clever.

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Alaska's Flight 2738 to Portland? Not a side-splitter (and not meant to be), but I don't blame Alaska, and it certainly exemplifies that problem that we're talking about.

The fun flight numbers may stay, but as for the rest, the numbers' numbers are up.

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If you need a break from worrying about nuclear war and how tax reform is going to affect your business, ponder flight numbers. I've added it to my list of things to worry about in 2018, and I keep hearing Frank Sinatra crooning, "There may be trouble ahead," from Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance."

A reader asked recently about flight numbers, and like anything that has to do with airlines, you ask a simple question and you won't get a simple answer.

That's not a knock on airlines, but a commentary on the enormous challenges of and changes in the industry. Unfortunately, there's a price to be paid.

Assigning flight numbers "used to be an art, believe it or not," said Brett Snyder, president of CrankyFlier.com, which deals with all manner of airline questions, and CrankyConcierge.com, which offers air travel assistance.

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There is beauty in simplicity. Several flights are the numeral 1, including American Airlines' flight from New York's John F. Kennedy to Los Angeles International, which leaves at 8 a.m. and arrives just before noon. It's a longtime route and has a certain prestige to it.

It also has a blot on its history. American's Flight 1 crashed in 1962, killing all aboard. American did not retire that number, although many airlines do after an accident. Asiana Airlines, for instance, changed the Flight 214 number assigned to the Seoul-San Francisco route after a July 2013 crash at SFO in which three people were killed and scores injured.

American and United retired the flight numbers of the planes downed in the 9/11 attacks, although United accidentally reactivated them because of a system glitch (and then deactivated them).

On a whimsical note, airlines sometimes do the numeric version of wordplay, Snyder said. Besides Philly and Columbus, you'll sometimes find flights to Vegas with a 711 flight number (Spirit has had one). You may find a 415 (JetBlue and Southwest) for flights to San Francisco (its area code) or a 66 for a JetBlue flight from JFK to Albuquerque (presumably for Route 66, never mind St. Louis; Joplin, Mo.; Oklahoma City ….)

Eight is considered a lucky number in some Asian cultures, so flights to that part of the world may use that number.

But what's happening with most flight numbers is far from amusing. Because of mergers and growth in the airline industry, it's running out of numbers.

That's because flight numbers cannot be larger than four digits.

Why not just make them bigger, like adding extra letters or digits to a license plate?

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Easy for us to say, not so easy for airlines to do, Snyder said. Airline computer systems are hard-coded for no more than four digits. And that means the number of available numbers is finite.

When you tell people there are 10,000 flights a day, "most people think…10,000 is a lot for any given day," Snyder said. "It's not."

Factor in that numbers are used only once a day and some numbers aren't used at all, including 13 and, yes, 666 and…."We're running out of numbers!" Southwest explains in a post called "The Science Behind the Numbers."

"To start with, the numero uno industrywide-rule is that no flight number can contain more than four digits, meaning we only have up to flight number 9999 to work with," Southwest writes.

"(No airline can use five-digit flight numbers! While this has been debated in the industry for years, the level of effort to make the change from four to five digits would be huge, and even the level of technology change to add alpha characters to published flight numbers would be gargantuan…although it would be fun to 'name' flights—'Now boarding, Southwest Airlines Flight FRED to Los Angeles.')"

Somehow, I just can't imagine WN FRED. (WN is Southwest's two-letter code. Many of those codes make sense — AA for American and BA for British Airways — but some do not.)

The numbers are becoming so scarce that one of the identifying factors of flight numbers — eastern and northern destinations were usually even numbered and western and southern were odd — are generally not used that way these days, Southwest noted in its post.

Some airlines with "there and back" flights use the same number going and coming in order to conserve.

Eventually, the numbers will be expanded, but it will be difficult and hugely expensive, Snyder said, and we know who will end up paying for that, don't we?

We can blame the people who failed to imagine the future, starting with Irish-born physicist Lord Kelvin who supposedly said in 1895 that "heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible."

Now the only thing that seems impossible is finding numbers to designate where all these routes go. It may be time to just face the music and dance.

Have a travel dilemma or question? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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