Did you have a cool nickname as a kid? Maybe one of your friends did. We all know someone with a longer name that prefers to go by an abbreviation or nickname. When it comes to radio communications, airlines work exactly the same way.
Every airline has its own call sign for use in radio communications. Any given flight will be known over the radios as its airline call sign followed by that flight’s number — Delta 993 for example. A commercial flight will use this call sign from the scheduled departure gate to the scheduled arrival gate, even if that flight diverts or needs to make a stop for any reason.
If an aircraft is not part of an airline or air carrier’s fleet, then it will be identified by its aircraft type and tail number by Air Traffic Control (ATC). Also, the phonetic alphabet is used globally in aviation, for consistency. Instead of just saying “A” you’d say “alpha,” and “N” would be “November” and so on. A Learjet with the tail number N45LJ would be referred to as “Learjet 45 Lima Juliet.” Most smaller general aviation aircraft and business jets are identified this way.
If you think about it, the way in which airplanes are assigned call signs is no different from the way people get their nicknames. Sometimes people will shorten their first name and other times they’ll go by their middle name or something that represents them. Other times, they’ll just make something up!
Delta, American and United each keep it straightforward by using only their airline’s proper name as the call sign, but some airlines have had very creative call signs over the years. Check out these examples — some of which are from airlines that have since merged with other airlines, but the nicknames still retain their cool factor!
- America West – “Cactus” due to their headquarters in Phoenix, AZ
- AirTran – “Citrus” due to their Orlando, FL headquarters and heavy emphasis on flights originating in Florida
- Virgin America – “Redwood” named for the California Redwood tree, due their San Francisco headquarters and California focus
- Atlas Air – “Giant” because this airline, for much of their history, only flew the massive Boeing 747 freighter
Two of the more unique and creative call signs flying in the U.S. today actually belong to Trans States and Republic Airlines — two regional airlines. Republic flies regional jets for Delta, United and American. This Indianapolis-based airline uses the call sign “brickyard,” paying homage to the iconic Indianapolis Motor Speedway — aka “The Brickyard.” Trans States flights use the call sign “waterski.” Yes, waterski, the aquatic activity. This call sign dates back to the airline’s beginning in 1982 as a tiny carrier named Resort Air that primarily carried passengers to the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri.
Call signs, like names, come in all shapes and sizes but they’re each unique to one airline or airplane. In a way, they’re even more unique than a personal name because at no given time will there ever be two planes in the air with the same call sign. The call sign system is just one of the many structures in place to keep air traffic flowing smoothly and safely.