What if airline flights had names instead of numbers? Hmmmmm!.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome aboard Angela, our eight o'clock flight to Orlando."
"Hey, Mike, what flight are you taking to L.A. tomorrow?" "Umm, I'm not sure, I think I'm taking John." "John's going with you to L.A.?" "No, no, John's not going. I'm going by myself." "Oh; that's what I thought. John's on vacation this week, anyway. So what flight are you on?" "I told you---I'm taking John!" "BUT YOU SAID JOHN'S NOT GOING!"
Okay, forget it. Bad idea. Way too confusing. Let's just stick with numbers for flights. However, believe it or not, there is a method of sorts behind the way airlines assign flight numbers. Historically, in the United States flights going from East to West, and from North to South, are given odd flight numbers. Flights from the West to East, and South to North, carry even flight numbers. This practice dates back to the 1940s, when flights carried both numbers and names (like premier trains did--names like the Zephyr or the Sunset Limited or the Senator).
Then there is the importance factor. For most airlines, the lower the flight number, the more "prestigious" a flight is. Take Flight 1, for example. At American Airlines, flight 1 is their prime 9:00 a.m. flight from Kennedy Airport in New York to Los Angeles. At United, Flight 1 is their daily nonstop from Chicago O'Hare to Honolulu. Northwest Flight 1 is their daily 747 from Los Angeles to Tokyo and Hong Kong. Even venerable old Pan Am got in on this act–their Flight 1 was their Eastbound round-the-world flight, heading east out of JFK for a total global circumnavigation, stopping at London, Frankfurt, Delhi (or Bombay, depending on the day of week), Hong Kong, Tokyo, Honolulu, and Los Angeles before returning to JFK. I had the pleasure to be on several legs of PA1 once back in the late 70s, and what I remember most was how many different types of beer were in their liquor kits. That's my kind of travel!
At Southwest, we don't really follow any of these flight numbering schemes. None of our flights are odd (ahem) and all of our flights are important, just as all of our Customers are. However, we are sticklers for history. Our Flight 1 is the early flight in the first market we ever flew–our 7:00 a.m. flight from Dallas/Love to Houston/Hobby. It's been that way for as long as any of us can remember, and I have a hunch if we tried to change it there would be more wailing and gnashing of teeth than there was over changing the flavor of Coke.
And believe it or not, there is airline flight number humor. I guess in an industry as difficult as this one is, you take pleasure wherever you can find it. Southwest flight 711 (as well as that USAirways 711 and Northwest 711) go to, naturally, La$ Vega$. Continental flight 1492 and America West 1492 both go to Columbus (sailed the ocean blue–get it?). Until recently, Southwest flight 1969 flew between Islip and Baltimore–because that was the year the New York Mets beat the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series (we have a big-time baseball fan from Long Island in our Department). And in a nod to our national history, American, Delta, and Continental all schedule a flight 1776 to Philadelphia.
Perhaps the prize for the "geekiest" flight number humor would go to ... me! About nine years ago, Southwest began Saturday-only nonstop service between Las Vegas and Spokane, Tulsa, and New Orleans. I spent one entire weekend wracking my brain coming up with six flight numbers that, if you added up the individual numerals in the flight number, added up to 21. I remember two of them--one was 1947 (1 + 9 + 4 + 7 = 21), and another was 885 (8 + 8 + 5 = 21). Come to think of it, that was also about the time I realized that I really needed to get a life.
So next time you book a flight, stop and think for a second about the flight number. It might not have any particular significance. But if it turns out to be one of those "special" flight numbers, smile. Somewhere, you will have made a Schedule Planner's day!