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What Do Aircraft Registrations Mean?

Jan. 31, 2019
8 min read
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If you think the flashy Gulfstream private jet in the image below says NIKE on its side, you're not wrong. Or, well, you're almost right. What you are seeing is the registration of the aircraft owned by Phil Knight, founder of Nike: It actually is N1KE. With the number one written like a capital I, it seems like it says NIKE.

Air traffic control, and its pilots, will read it on the radio as "November One Kilo Echo" in phonetic alphabet — but to anybody who looks at it, it's a nice marketing tool, as well as the ultimate vanity plate.

The Nike jet at Zurich's Kloten airport in 2009. Image by Peter Bakema via Wikimedia Commons
The Nike jet at Zurich's Kloten airport in 2009. Image by Peter Bakema via Wikimedia Commons

And a license plate is, in fact, what that N1KE is. Every civilian aircraft in the world has a registration, essentially the license plate assigned to an aircraft by national civil aviation bodies. It's a unique identifier; no two airplanes in the world at any given moment have the same. (They can be recycled, though.)

And because those registrations are unique. with a bit of Google research you can find out the age and owner of any plane based on its registration alone.

If you look closely at the rear fuselage of this lovely new American Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8, below the windows and just above the open door of the aft cargo hold, you'll see the registration for this aircraft, N338RS. Here's the registration record, indicating she received her airworthiness certificate November 7, 2018. This aircraft still has that new-plane smell (but you'll find it pretty cramped on the inside.) If you want to find out other details — about the engines, for example — you can head over to Planespotters, while tracking sites like Flightradar24 will tell you where it went and where it will go.

Image by TPG staff

But what's up with the N? Shouldn't registrations for United States airplanes begin with US? After all, the Japanese get JA, the French have F, and many other nations get a prefix that makes more sense than N: EI for Ireland (Eire in Gaelic), TC for Turkey from the Turkish initials of "Turkish Republic," YU for Serbia, which kept it from the erstwhile Yugoslavia.

"N" Stands for the US

On the heels of World War I, when the use of airplanes boomed, the 1919 Paris International Air Navigation Convention assigned one-letter codes to participating nations. Aircraft were then individually identified on the radio with four letters following the country code — and some still are. The US already had radio rights to "N", "W" and "K". As early as 1909, the US Navy used "N" but "W" and "K" were apparently randomly assigned. You may recognize W and K, as those were progressively assigned to radio — and now TV — operators such as WDIV and KTLA.

According to Federal Aviation Administration historians, “the Journal Aviation wanted the US to adopt W in honor of the Wright brothers.” But it was not meant to be. The one that stuck was N.

In the US, then, registration numbers are five alphanumeric characters:

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  • One to five numbers (N1 to N2345)
  • One to four numbers followed by one letter (N1234Z)
  • One to three numbers followed by two letters (N123AZ)

To avoid confusion with the numbers one and zero, the letters "I" and "O" are not used.

In radio transmissions in the US, the N prefix is not read aloud. For commercial flights, all over the world, the registrations are not read at all; each airline has its own call sign, such as American for, you guessed it, American Airlines; Brickyard for Republic Airlines, Speedbird for British Airways; Shamrock for Aer Lingus, and so on. In contrast, general aviation — private jets from that Nike Gulfstream to small Cessnas — will generally use a registration-based call sign.

Placement on the Aircraft

A vintage United Airlines DC3 showing registration numbers on the wing. Image via One Six Right.
A vintage United Airlines DC-3 showing registration numbers on the wing. Image courtesy of One Six Right.

Registrations were required to be placed on the fuselage and the wings until 1960; you may have seen older prop planes such as the Douglas DC-3 with such markings. After 1960, only the fuselage marking was required. There are also specific requirements for the size of the type, and that it be a sans-serif font. Nowadays, you'll find the placement on the fuselage, and tiny at that.

Great Britain: Golf with a Dollop of Sexy

The UK was assigned "G" in 1919 for Great Britain, followed by four letters British Airways paid homage to its roots as the British Overseas Airways Corp.; its flagship Concorde was registered G-BOAC. It's a distinctly British touch.

Its rival Virgin Atlantic is less stately. It famously uses the four letters after the G to spell, or hint at, something fun, hence:

  • G-VOOH
  • G-VLUV
  • G-VAHH
  • G-VLIP
  • G-VBIG
  • G-VYUM

Fleet-tracking site Planespotters is a good place to find all of Virgin's registrations in one place, including its very first plane, a 747 with the tail code G-VIRG.

Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG
Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG

Above is 787 G-VYUM, photographed last October in San Francisco. My personal favorite from the Virgin fleet is G-VWAG —slang for the "wives and girlfriends" of, usually, sports stars.

Commercial registrations that don't have four letters are less flexible, so US operators can't usually spell anything much. Many airlines use their two-letter code at the end of their registrations, hence Delta jets that end in DL or United in UA. Below, an MD-88 registered N912DL takes off in Atlanta.

Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG

Spirit Airlines registrations end in NK, which matches its two-letter code. This may be a reference to the founder, Ned Homfeld, and "Ned's Kids". JetBlue's two-letter code is B6, which cannot be used at the end of a US registration, so JetBlue planes end in JB, like this Airbus A320 in special retro colors.

Around the World

Brits aren't the only ones into clever aircraft registrations. For example, in Germany, where all planes have a D for Deutschland followed by four letters, there's D-ANKE, a private and polite Bombardier Challenger Jet. If you fly WOW Air (kind of a dicey proposition with the airline in serious financial trouble) you'll see that after the two-letter identifier for Iceland, TF, it uses three letters that make up English words: hence Airbuses with registrations like TF-KID and TF-JOY. There's also TF-CAT, and if you're more of a canine person, you'll find TF-DOG.

Indian aircraft have a strange registration: Victor Tango—VT. Why not "I" for India? Italy's got that covered, grazie mille.

VT was a designation chosen by the British authorities for its then-colony; Commonwealth countries did not have a seat at the 1919 table. India did not exist as a country until 1947. Similarly, Australia was assigned several V-prefix identifiers, including "VH," which it uses to this day. Hong Kong was assigned VR, until 1997, when it began using B, the identifier for China; Newfoundland was assigned VO until it became part of Canada and began using Canadian registrations.

However, VT is still considered by Indians as a marker of colonialism. Indian lawmakers have demanded that it be changed, on the grounds that VT stands for "Viceroy Territory," an insult to India's independence. This may be entirely coincidental, since other British colonies were assigned V identifiers. India, however, has not changed its designation.

Keep your eyes peeled for clever aircraft registrations the next time you fly, and look up the aircraft sitting next to you at the gate if you've got a moment before pushing back.

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Mike Arnot is the founder of Boarding Pass NYC, a New York-based travel brand, and a pilot. He can sometimes be heard above New York reading a call sign.

Featured image by Alberto Riva

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