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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's the Difference Between Vanilla and French Vanilla Ice Cream?
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While you’re browsing the ice cream aisle, you may find yourself wondering, “What’s so French about French vanilla?” The name may sound a little fancier than just plain ol’ “vanilla,” but it has nothing to do with the origin of the vanilla itself. (Vanilla is a tropical plant that grows near the equator.)

The difference comes down to eggs, as The Kitchn explains. You may have already noticed that French vanilla ice cream tends to have a slightly yellow coloring, while plain vanilla ice cream is more white. That’s because the base of French vanilla ice cream has egg yolks added to it.

The eggs give French vanilla ice cream both a smoother consistency and that subtle yellow color. The taste is a little richer and a little more complex than a regular vanilla, which is made with just milk and cream and is sometimes called “Philadelphia-style vanilla” ice cream.

In an interview with NPR’s All Things Considered in 2010—when Baskin-Robbins decided to eliminate French Vanilla from its ice cream lineup—ice cream industry consultant Bruce Tharp noted that French vanilla ice cream may date back to at least colonial times, when Thomas Jefferson and George Washington both used ice cream recipes that included egg yolks.

Jefferson likely acquired his taste for ice cream during the time he spent in France, and served it to his White House guests several times. His family’s ice cream recipe—which calls for six egg yolks per quart of cream—seems to have originated with his French butler.

But everyone already knew to trust the French with their dairy products, right?

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
How Many Rings Does Saturn Have?
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Of all the planets surrounded by rings, Saturn is the most famous. These planetary rings are massive enough that Galileo was able to see them using a simple telescope way back in 1610, though it wasn't until half a century later that another scientist was able to figure out what the "arms" Galileo saw actually were. NASA has since called them "the most recognized characteristic of any world in our solar system."

So how many rings does Saturn have, anyway? If you can see them from your backyard, there must be a lot, right?

Scientists don't know for sure exactly how many rings Saturn has. There are eight main, named ring groups that stretch across 175,000 miles, but there are far more than eight rings. These systems are named with letters of the alphabet, in order of their discovery. (Astronomers have known about ring groups A, B, and C since the 17th century, while others are newer discoveries. (The most recent was just discovered in 2009.)

The rings we can see in images of the planet—even high-resolution images—aren't single rings, per se, but are in fact comprised of thousands of smaller ringlets and can differ a lot in appearance, showing irregular ripples, kinks, and spokes. The chunky particles of ice that make up Saturn's rings vary in size from as small as a speck of dust to as large as a mountain.

While the gaps between Saturn's rings are small, the 26-mile-wide Keeler Gap is large enough to contain multiple moons, albeit very small ones. The largest ring system—the one discovered in 2009—starts 3.7 million miles away from Saturn itself and its material extends another 7.4 million miles out, though it's nearly invisible without the help of an infrared camera.

Researchers are still discovering new rings as well as new insights into the features of Saturn's already-known ring systems. In the early 1980s, NASA's Voyager missions took the first high-resolution images of Saturn and its rings, revealing previously unknown kinks in one of the narrower rings, known as the F ring. In 1997, NASA sent the Cassini orbiter to continue the space agency's study of the ringed planet, leading to the discovery of new rings, so faint that they remained unknown until Cassini's arrival in 2006. Before Cassini is sent to burn up in Saturn's atmosphere in September 2017, it's taking 22 dives through the space between the planet and its rings, bringing back new, up-close revelations about the ring system before the spacecraft dives to its death.

Though it's certainly possible to see Saturn's rings without any fancy equipment, using a low-end telescope at your house, that doesn't mean you always can. It depends on the way the planet is tilted; if you're looking at the rings edge-on, they may look like a flat line or, depending on the magnification, you might not be able to see them at all. However, 2017 happens to be a good year to see the sixth planet, so you're in luck.

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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