Skip to main content

Southwest Airlines Community

The Tail Number Game

blusk
Not applicable
Airplanes are like cars, each one has a specific and unique license plate number, but on aircraft the number is painted on the aircraft, usually near the tail. (Hence, the term "tail number.") Each country has a registration prefix set aside for their exclusive use. Aircraft registered in the United Kingdom carry the "G-" prefix, France has the "F-" prefix, and closer to home, Canadian airplanes carry a "C-" prefix. Some countries, like the ones I mentioned, use all letters in their registrations, but the U.S. uses the "N-" prefix followed by a combination of numbers and letters. I have no earthy idea why we didn't get the "U" designation, but I think it is because the Soviet Union originally used this before World War II. If anyone knows for sure, please post the answer. By the way, the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) guidelines for registration numbers can be found here. The other airplane freaks (besides me) among us know that we normally use "WN" (for our IATA airline code), "SW" or "SA" as our standard registration suffixes for our aircraft. When we went to the FAA to reserve the "N700xx" block of registrations for our Boeing 737-700s, we found that a lot of other aircraft owners like to use 700 numbers in their own registrations. No doubt, high rollers especially like N711xx. As a result, we had to scramble to find suffixes that had not already been taken because some folks had beat us to the punch and were already using our preferred suffixes. So, we turned to the initials of some of our VIPs, and in addition to Herb's (HK) and Colleen's (CB) initials, we used "GS" for Gene Stewart our 737-700 Project Director, "JW" for Jim Wimberly, our now retired Executive Vice President Aircraft Operations (and fellow aircraft nut), "RR" for Ron Ricks, Senior Vice President Law, Airports & Public Affairs, and "GB" for Gary Barron, our former Executive Vice President Operations. We also used "LV" as a contraction for LUV. As the 737-700 fleet grew, we ran out of the N700xx numbers, and next went to N400xx and are currently in the N200xx block. Incidentally, our retired 737-200s used numbers from 20 to about 105, our 737-300s are in the 300 and 600 blocks, and our 737-500s use the 500 block. Unlike some other airlines that assign additional "fleet numbers" (which don't always correspond to the registration) to their aircraft for internal identification, we use the N-number for internal identification.
41 Comments
Adam_Phillabaum
New Arrival
I'm pretty sure N stands for "North America." Which makes me wonder: What does Mexico use?
blusk
Not applicable
Hi Adam, Mexico uses "XA-"
Speed
Not applicable
From Aerospaceweb.org http://www.aerospaceweb.org/question/history/q0257.shtml "It is not entirely clear why N was originally chosen for the United States when U and US were available and would seem more logical choices (A for America might also be a good choice but was used for Austria for some period of time). The prevailing theory as to why N was chosen dates back to the days of Morse code when an international conference agreed to identify various nations by a one-letter designation to avoid confusion. Since the US Navy had already been using N to identify its stations, it is believed that this letter was chosen to represent the entire United States. Many of these wireless communication codes were later adopted for aviation as well, so the N was carried over and has been retained to the present day."
David_Ross2
Not applicable
"N" in no way stands for North America. I tend to believe the theory posted by Speed. Mexico uses not only XA but also XB and XC. It appears that XA is used for commercial aircraft (e.g. Aeromexico) while XB and XC are used for private and state-owned aircraft. The rules for registration numbers for the USA and Germany are at http://www.landings.com/evird.acgi?pass*83105517!mtd*40!ref*www.landings.com/_landings/pages/search/!pg*reg_rules.html. All known current and historical prefixes can be found at http://www8.landings.com/cgi-bin/get_file?prefix_p.html. If you want to look up a registration for a USA registered aircraft, just enter the N number into Google. At the top of the page, you'll be asked if you want to look up the registration of that aircraft.
Joe_Friedmann
Not applicable
you can also look up n numbers here: http://registry.faa.gov/aircraftinquiry/NNum_inquiry.asp
Scott5
Not applicable
Is the schedule for the speciality aircraft a guarded secret or could I call the IFLYSWA number and ask them if any of the special planes is schedule to come to my nearest Southwest airport? What would be the best way to ask for that information? Great explanation on the tails!
Matt22
Not applicable
I don't think its required that N### be followed necessarily by 2 letters. I know Continental has some aircraft with N##### (N followed by 5 numbers, no letters). The registration number rule links above show this to be allowed. Would Southwest ever consider the N##### arrangement?
blusk
Not applicable
Hi Scott and Matt, Thanks for your questions. First off, Scott, our Reservations folks don't get the specific routing for each aircraft, they havge enough information to impart without needing access to that info, and in all honesty, only the aircraft nuts like us would be even interested. With 451 aircraft, it takes several folks in our Dispatch and Maintenance Departments working fulltime on aircraft routings to operate our almost 3,100 daily flights all across the nation. While a specific aircraft is assigned to a routing "package", kind of like the way our Crews are scheduled--see Carole's post--it is not unusual for an aircraft to be swapped to another line to keep our flights ontime. So, even if our Res folks had that info, there is no real guarantee that a specific aircraft would be on the flight. Matt, there is no rule that we couldn't use all numbers. However, go back to my last sentence in the post about fleet numbers. If we went to five digit registrations, we would have to come up with three or four digit fleet numbers to ID our aircraft internally because the registration numbers would be so long--we try to keep things simple, so why add a second set of numbers. As it is today for our internal ID, we only use the 3-digit numbers, and will refer to an airplane as N702 without using the prefixes. Incidentally, foreign carriers use the last two or three letters of a all-letter registration for internal identification. For example, British Airways Concordes were registered G-BOAA, G-BOAB, G-BOAC, G-BOAD, etc. The fleet ID for the last one, as an example, was "AD" or "Alpha Delta" Brian
J__Richard_Blis
Not applicable
I am an old, bold pilot ( they say there is no such animal) and happen to know the origin of the "N" prefix. It is really too simple to be a question but when airplanes of the thirties were licenced, the National Aeronautic Association, ( FAA is the successor to the NAA), airplanes all had the prefix of NC. Like the Spirit of St Louis had the NC prefix. As time went on the prefix number on an airplane, the FAA dropped the "C" and the numbers just became N------. The people at Southwest will be happy to know that my Aircraft Number is N 777 RB. Many people have coveted that number like Richard Bach and Reading and Bates Offshore Drilling Corp. and a host of others. I keep that number for many reasons, the most important reason is that I have had that number for over 30 years, and was on my airplane, a highly modified turbocharged Beechcraft Bonanza that I piloted to WIN the First Transatlantic Air Race in 1985, it was aptly named "The Spirit of Tulsa" I taught the Europeans and some American hotshots how to win air races. The "N" number simply stands for "National". With warm personal regards, Richard Blissit ( N 777 RB)
Anonymous3753
Not applicable
I was at Midway the day before yesterday and flew out on AC # N219JC. Does anyone know who that stands for? I was joking with the CSA and we decided since the flight was going to Salt Lake City, it must stand for Jesus Christ... Of course who can forget about the tail numbers we have that end in "AA" those are the leased planes from American Airlines.
Gowser
Not applicable
Hi Brian, Really interesting article - I love to find out what happens behind the scenes. Are any of the tail numbers regarded as special? Google tells me that N737SW isn't one of yours - would be pretty cool if you were able to get this registration. Nick
blusk
Not applicable
Thanks, Nick. You're right, it would have been cool if N737SW could have been used on one of our aircraft. The FAA shows that number is assigned to a Beech-18 since 1993--not exactly a 737 is it? I'm not sure by your question if any of our numbers are regarded as special. I think you could say that the ones with our Employee's initials, like N711HK for Herb Kelleher, are special. Richard, thanks for fessing up, and I assure you that there are no hard feelings. We have lived for 35 years on the "first-come, first served" principle, and three decades ago, I doubt that we would have ever thought that we would have 451 aircraft with more on the way. By the way, your Bonanza sounds like one fine piece of machinery! Brian
David_Ross2
Not applicable
J Richard Blissit: The FAA is not the successor to the the NAA. The NAA is a private organization (http://www.naa.aero/?CFID=1425418&CFTOKEN=33755820). The FAA took over some of the responsiblities of the CAA and CAB (http://www.faa.gov/about/history/brief_history/). Not all aircraft were registered NC. Extracted below is the data from the link in my posting above (http://www8.landings.com/cgi-bin/get_file?prefix_p.html): N United States of America (USA) [x]1 - [x]99999, [x]1A - [x]9999Z, Y ? - [x]1AA - [x]999ZZ, (x = category = C/L/R/S/X) (letters "I" and "O" are not used, so they can't be confused with the digits "1" and "0"), the '-' (dash) as separator is normally not used, but can be sometimes seen applied before or after the category prefix, which itself was normally displayed up to the mid-1950s, while today only (some) oldtimer (are allowed to) show such a prefix, the categories are: C = Commercial L = Limited R = Restricted S = Standard (?) X = eXperimental
Brian_Wright
Not applicable
Hi Brian, Completely off the subject; I would like to get ahold of the Southwest Airlines segment that was featured on 60 Minutes some time ago. No luck with CBS. Need it for a grad school presentation about organizational theory. Appreciate any help you can offer. Brian
Michael_J_Simon
Not applicable
Brian---This is a great topic. I'm in the system frequently, always look at the tail numbers, as well as the names painted under the portside cockpit windows on a few of the aircraft. And I've been curious about those I could not identify. N711HK was easy and the "JW" and "CB" aircraft were logical as well. Who is/was Donald Ogden? And I've recently spotted an aircraft several gates away, where I could not read the name outside the cockpit clearly but it seemed to be "John ..." and tai may have been N300WN. Is that enough of a clue for you to decode? Thanks. Mike Simons
blusk
Not applicable
Hi Mike, Thanks for the great comments. Donald Ogden was our first Vice President of Flight Operations, and he put together our first Team of Pilots. As to the named aircraft that starts with "John...", I am a bit puzzled. N300SW (we don't have a N300WN) is one of our "Spirits of Kitty Hawk" and it was the world's first 737-300 to go into service. N601WN is "the Jack Vidal" and honors our first Vice President of Maintenance and Engineering. Brian
Matt29
Not applicable
I was just talking with another flight attendant (f/a) on a flight the other day about this. We're receiving a LOT of new 7H4s (737-700s) this year. We use 2, 4, & 7 tail numbers to denote the -700s. What are we going to use when we reach above N299xx? We've used 2, 3, 4, 5, 7 #s so far...maybe 8 then?
Bruce4
Not applicable
You can find a good summary of the various accounts of how "N" became the official designator for aircraft registered in the U.S. at: http://www.aahs-online.org/articles/N-number.htm
Kadin_Mercer1
Not applicable
I thought that was an interesting articles about the way different numbers are used on the airplanes.
Bruce_Bridges
Not applicable
What's going to happen to the special schemes when the -300s are retired? Are there any plans in the works to transfer the other early early special schemes (Arizona One, California One, Triple Crown, etc.) to -700s as was done with Shamu?
jones36
Not applicable
Very good article, I worked for WN from 1999-2001, I wondered what some of the designations stood for I knew JW, CB, HK, I now I now the rest thanks
Scott5
Not applicable
Does Southwest do something special when they welcome a new plane into the fleet (fresh from Boeing)?, Is Southwest going to have something really big when they welcome their 500th plane into the fleet?
blusk
Not applicable
We do indeed, Scott! Just yesterday, we introduced our Spread the LUV aircraft in conjunction with America's Second Harvest, and we had a peanut butter unloading ceremony to signify our drive to gather peanut butter for food banks all across our system. (See southwest.com for details, www.southwest.com) For the dedication of Maryland One, it was unveiled at Baltimore and local officials attended the unveiling and our CEO, Gary Kelly spoke. For New Mexico One's introduction in Albuquerque, members of the Zia tribe (their symbol is on the state flag) blessed the aircraft. When Slam Dunk One was introduced, the ceremonies included members of Basketball's Hall of Fame, including Bill Walton and Bill Russell. I'm sure that we will do something big for the 500th airplane because we did the same with the 300th and 400th one. By the way, Airways Magazine has a special edition out on the newstands now that is devoted entirely to our 35th Anniversary, and I wrote an article about our special liveries. There are photos of all our special aircraft and many of the dedication ceremonies. You can get the issue at most bookstores or directly from Airways (www.airwaysmag.com).
Scott5
Not applicable
For the Spread the Luv plane, what's its tail number? N238WN?
Scott5
Not applicable
Which executive was N217JC dedicated to? Thanks again for a great article.
blusk
Not applicable
Hi Scott, I appreciate your comments. We will be putting up a post about the Spread the LUV dedication soon. I beleive it was N238WN. As to the "JC" prefix, I am not sure. It doesn't match up with any of our current Officers, but there are several Directors that have those intitials, and it could be for one of them. Brian
Scott5
Not applicable
Brian, there was a great shot of N523SW, one of your 500 series jets taking off from Love Field on the Friday's CBS11 story about the Wright Amendment.
Scott5
Not applicable
How is N501SW doing, I noticed my certificate date that she will be 16 this coming Sept 18th. Is there a maximum age for how long a plane can serve?
J__Richard_Blis
Not applicable
Many people ask me about the safety record at SWA. and I proceed to tell them that SWA has never had an inflight fatality of a passenger or a crew member. Sadly a young boy lost his life in a car struck by an overunning SWA 737 in an ice storm. I think the NTSB might place a bit of responsibility on the PIC on judgement in landing long or too hot, for the IMC conditions at the time. But the real reason for the unheard of Safety record is this; #1 SWA only flies one aircraft type- the 737. sure, they have upgraded the 737 with different series numbers, but it is essentially the same "TYPE". (as in "type rating" for a pilot) #2 The PIC and the SIC only need to train in on one simulator, and fly one TYPE of aircraft. #3 The flight technicians ( mechanics) only have to service, repair, or overhaul , one TYPE of aircraft #4 The flight attendants only have to train for emergencies, only on one TYPE of aircraft. This may not be the whole story of SWA's safety record, but it just makes sense that when the PIC or the SIC climbs aboard, they're "home". They've been there, done that, and have the "T" shirt to proove it. The same reasoning goes along with the other disciplines. Training costs money, big money, but when the obligatory six months or less refreshers in the training simulators they don't have to reinvent the wheel. If I need to go longer distances or avoid weather I always go SWA, instead of flying my own aircraft. Sincerely, J. Richard Blissit
Scott5
Not applicable
Congratulations on the delivery of N240WN earlier today.
FriendofBlogBoy
Not applicable
Brian, This seems like a good section of the blog to pose my question. You know I'm a fellow plane buff (nut?) and that I'm in LUV with Southwest. I'm often asked by my friends who know my obsession, err, interest in Southwest to name all of the "special" planes. In my office, I have several models and pictures of Lone Star One to celebrate my home state, and I can usually name about the first ten or so, but I get a bit fuzzy on all of them. Could you list out the 'names' and tail numbers of each of the ones with the unique livery? And, what's the chance that your webpage will be updated with pictures of all of the recent additions? I'm referring to: http://www.southwest.com/about_swa/photos.html Thanks! Kim P. S. By the way, even though my bud Brian was making a somewhat self-serving comment about the special Airways magazine edition above (I think he gets a royalty on every one sold), it IS a fantastic keepsake of the 35th anniversary and I highly recommend it to my fellow SWA fanatics! He did just a terrific job on it, and while he's being modest by saying he wrote "an" article in it, I believe that if the truth were known, he probably did about 95% of the work to put the issue together. Outstanding work, Brian!
Scott5
Not applicable
Do you know at what tail number the 500th plane will have?
Scott5
Not applicable
Here's is a list of special liverys and tail numbers associated with each Shamu I N334SW New Shamu II N713SW New Shamu III N715SW Lone Star One N352SW Arizona One N383SW California One N609SW Silver One N629SW Triple Crown One N647SW Nevada One N727SW New Mexico One N781WN Spirit One (First Canyon Blue aircraft) N793SA Maryland One N214WN Slam Dunk One N224WN 5000th 737 N230WN 2000th New Generation 737 N248WN
Scott5
Not applicable
Shamu II and III was N501SW and N507SW but Southwest wanted the Shamus to have national exposure and the N500 series were the Boeing 737-500 series which are the shorter haul 122 passenger where today most of them run inside the Wright Amendment states. So they painted N501SW and N507SW canyon blue and made N713SW and N715SW Shamu II and III instead.
Scott5
Not applicable
I read on another blog that N217JC and N216WR were the initials of two SWA maintenance personnel that were based in Phoenix that were killed in the plane crash in Georgia, Can you confirm this?
blusk
Not applicable
Scott, N507SW is still "Shamu II" and I just rode on it not too long ago. N334SW is "Shamu I" Brian
Scott5
Not applicable
I just read on dfw.com that you just bought a 737-700 aircraft from the Ford Motor Company, what tail number is this plane expected to get?
blusk
Not applicable
Scott, It will be N270WN Brian
Scott5
Not applicable
I have seen photos of it (as a Ford) on another website and noticed that it does NOT have winglets yet. Will it get winglets right away before being put to work or will it be wingletless (is that a word) for a while and be included with the 737-300 group of 90 next year?
Aviongoo_Market
Not applicable
You can use the following code to have N_number lookup on your website or blog.
Ba11
Not applicable
Where do N-numbers come from? The U.S. received the "N" as its nationality designator under the International Air Navigation Convention, held in 1919. The Convention prescribed an aircraft-marking scheme of a single letter indicating nationality followed by a hyphen and four identity letters (for example, G-REMS). source: http://www.faa.gov/licenses_certificates/aircraft_certification/aircraft_registry/aircraft_nnumber_history/