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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
What Does the Sergeant at Arms Do?
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
House Sergeant at Arms Paul Irving and Donald Trump arrive for a meeting with the House Republican conference.
Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

In 1981, shortly after Howard Liebengood was elected the 27th Sergeant at Arms of the United States Senate, he realized he had no idea how to address incoming president-elect Ronald Reagan on a visit. “The thought struck me that I didn't know what to call the President-elect,'' Liebengood told The New York Times in November of that year. ''Do you call him 'President-elect,' 'Governor,' or what?” (He went with “Sir.”)

It would not be the first—or last—time someone wondered what, exactly, a Sergeant at Arms (SAA) should be doing. Both the House and the Senate have their own Sergeant at Arms, and their visibility is highest during the State of the Union address. For Donald Trump’s State of the Union on January 30, the 40th Senate SAA, Frank Larkin, will escort the senators to the House Chamber, while the 36th House of Representatives SAA, Paul Irving, will introduce the president (“Mister [or Madam] Speaker, the President of the United States!”). But the job's responsibilities extend far beyond being an emcee.

The Sergeants at Arms are also their respective houses’ chief law enforcement officers. Obliging law enforcement duties means supervising their respective wings of the Capitol and making sure security is tight. The SAA has the authority to find and retrieve errant senators and representatives, to arrest or detain anyone causing disruptions (even for crimes such as bribing representatives), and to control who accesses chambers.

In a sense, they act as the government’s bouncers.

Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin escorts China's president Xi Jinping
Senat Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin (L) escorts China's president Xi Jinping during a visit to Capitol Hill.
Astrid Riecken, Getty Images

This is not a ceremonial task. In 1988, Senate SAA Henry Giugni led a posse of Capitol police to find, arrest, and corral Republicans missing for a Senate vote. One of them, Republican Senator Bob Packwood of Oregon, had to be carried to the Senate floor to break the filibustering over a vote on senatorial campaign finance reform.

While manhandling wayward politicians sounds fun, it’s more likely the SAAs will be spending their time on administrative tasks. As protocol officer, visits to Congress by the president or other dignitaries have to be coordinated and escorts provided; as executive officer, they provide assistance to their houses of Congress, with the Senate SAA assisting Senate offices with computers, furniture, mail processing, and other logistical support. The two SAAs also alternate serving as chairman of the Capitol Police board.

Perhaps a better question than asking what they do is pondering how they have time to do it all.

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 Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
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Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

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