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What Does Your Flight Number Mean?

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We all know that flight numbers are important when it comes to checking airport gate monitors or flight statuses online, but beyond that, do we really pay attention to them? While they might seem trivial to some degree in today’s world of technological check-ins, the numbers aren’t entirely random, and they aren’t meaningless. In fact, you can presume a lot about a flight just by its number.  

According to Patrick Smith, former airline pilot and author of Cockpit Confidential, a flight number is technically a combination of numbers and letters prefaced by the carrier’s two letter code—Delta is DL, United is UA, and American is AA, etc.

Typically, flights going eastbound or north are assigned even numbers, and those headed west or south get odd numbers (there are exceptions to this rule, though). Return flights between destinations are often assigned a number that is one higher/lower than the outbound flight. So, if you were flying roundtrip from Philadelphia to St. Maarten, U.S. Air flight 1209 would take you down to the Caribbean (southbound) and flight 1208 would bring you back to the States (northbound).

In general, the lower the number, the more “prestigious” the flight route is for that particular airline. One or two-digit numbers are typically assigned to popular routes—usually of the long-distance variety—such as United Flight 44 from Newark to London. If you find yourself on a flight with a low number, it’s a pretty safe bet that your flight is a regular moneymaker for the airline.

Flight numbers made up of four-digit sequences starting with 3 or higher are ordinarily an indication of a code-share flight. Think U.S. Airways Express where you are flown between destinations on behalf of U.S. Air. You might purchase your ticket through U.S. Air, but the plane and crew belong to a separate partner airline.

As frequent business flyers have no doubt noticed, flight numbers along a specific route can remain unchanged for years barring any sort of incident. This is a bit of a downer example, but American’s daily departure from Boston to Los Angeles had been flight AA11 for decades until the attacks of September 11, 2001. Out of respect, airlines are quick to change the flight number of a route after an incident, solidifying their place in history, which is why so many unfortunate disasters of the past can still be easily referred to by their flight numbers.

Because exceptions exist and airline policies differ, these trends are far from set in stone, and you can find contradictions in the above school of thought—sometimes directly, such as an odd-numbered flight flying east. But what can we say? Perfection has never been the airline industry’s cup of tea. 

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Big Questions
Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?
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CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images

On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 92 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 9, 2018, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or "colours"—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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