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Why Some Airlines Give Their Aircraft Names

June 16, 2019
9 min read
KLM MD-11 Audrey Hepburn
Why Some Airlines Give Their Aircraft Names
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One time I was walking through the concourse when I passed a Lufthansa jet parked at the gate. There on the nose was a single word. “Worms,” it said.

What in the world?, I thought. Worms? Worms? Then it dawned on me. Ah, that’s right, Lufthansa names most of its jets after German cities. Worms is the historic, nearly 2,000-year-old town in the Upper Rhineland where, in 1521, Martin Luther was declared a heretic.

All airliners wear registrations — numbers or letters that also indicate a plane’s nation of origin — on the rear fuselage, but some also carry names. If a plane has been christened in honor of a place, person, or thing, look for titles on the forward fuselage. It's an old-school practice, and one that I’m quite fond of. It makes flying a touch less impersonal and a touch more dignified. Any airline that bothers to name its planes, I feel, is one that takes its mission to heart.

Lufthansa Airbus A340 carrying the name "Worms" in Atlanta in 2007 (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)
The Lufthansa Airbus A340 carrying the name "Worms" at the Atlanta airport in 2007 (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Nobody did this with more panache than Pan Am, where each aircraft sported a distinctive Clipper designation, a carryover from the airline’s grandiose earlier years when its flying boats pioneered routes across the oceans. There were nautical references (Sea Serpent, Mermaid, Gem of the Ocean), including a particular fascination with waves (Crest of the Wave, Dashing Wave, Wild Wave). There were nods to Greek and Roman mythology (Jupiter, Mercury, Argonaut) and the inevitable heaping of faux-inspirational piffle (Empress of the Skies, Glory of the Skies, Freedom). A few of them made you wonder if Juan Trippe and his boys weren’t tippling too much Scotch in the boardrooms over on Park Avenue: Water Witch? Neptune’s Car? Young Brander? Turns out those were taken from old sailing vessels.

When the wreckage of Pan Am 103 fell onto Lockerbie, Scotland, in 1988, the only part of the plane to remain somewhat intact was the very front — a decapitated portion of the forward fuselage including the cockpit and first class cabin. It was crushed when it landed, on its side, but still it looked like a piece of an airplane, which is more than you can say for the rest of the jet. It was widely photographed and became a news icon in the days and weeks that followed. There it was, on the front of every newspaper and magazine, and it is easily found on the Internet today. The photo shows detritus and debris everywhere, wires and shredded metal, all surrounding this impossibly still-dignified chunk of a Boeing 747. There’s the blue stripe, the paint barely scratched. And there, just above the oval cabin windows in frilly blue lettering, you can still read clearly the words Clipper Maid of the Seas.

Most airlines don't bother with this sort of thing anymore, but a few, like Lufthansa, still do.

KLM names its jets after cities, national parks, waterfalls, famous inventors and explorers. KLM’s fleet of McDonnell Douglas MD-11s is now retired, but each was named after a famous woman. There was the Marie Curie, the Florence Nightingale, the Audrey Hepburn, and several others. In years past, KLM's 747s all were named after rivers. In 1977, the Rhine collided with Pan Am's Clipper Victor on the Spanish island of Tenerife, in history's deadliest air disaster.

KLM names its 747s after cities in its long-haul network, like Jakarta (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)
KLM names its current 747 fleet after cities in its long-haul network, like Jakarta (Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG)

At Alitalia you’ll find a grab bag of islands (like an Airbus A319 named Isola di Capri), writers (Italo Calvino, another A319), artists (Tiepolo, an Airbus A330), and more. Turkish Airlines names its spotless Boeings and Airbuses after Turkish cities or landmarks. You can ride aboard the Göreme or the Istanbul — or the Karadeniz, named after the Turkish term for the Black Sea. Hawaiian Airlines does seabirds and constellations. For a while, Air Namibia was flying a 747 named Welwitschia, homage to a strange desert succulent that grows in the Namibian wilds and can live for centuries.

Aer Lingus goes with Irish saints, no surprise there, with the names both in English and Gaelic. In 1979, I was at Boston’s Logan Airport when Pope John Paul II stepped off the St. Patrick, one of Aer Lingus’s old 747-100s, touching off his historic first visit to the USA. The St. Patrick was one of only two 747s that Aer Lingus operated, and was a regular visitor at BOS for many years. (Its demise, as with so many jetliners, was one of ignominy at its saddest. An internet search tells us: “Plane scrapped in 2002 in Tijuana, Mexico.”)

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In Soviet times, Aeroflot didn’t bother with this practice. It was by far the world’s largest airline at the time, and coming up with over a thousand names was maybe too much to expect? Nowadays, though, the Russian airline pays tribute to Russian composers, philosophers, authors, and even sports figures — in Cyrillic alphabet on the left side of the nose and Latin script on the right. If you’re wondering who Lev Yashin is, immortalized on the side of an A330, he was a famous Russian soccer star. The last of Aeroflot’s Cold War-era Illyushin jets was named Igor Moiseyev, a giant of Soviet ballet.

An Airbus A321 bearing the name in Cyrillic of theater director Yevgeny Vakhtangov, at Omsk Airport in Russia (Photo by Dmitry Feoktistov / TASS via Getty Images)

Indeed, what I love best about the tradition of plane-naming is the way it blends aviation and culture. This crossover has a way of reminding you that the real beauty of air travel is more than just technological. It’s about connection — the linking of distant places. The airplane is an ambassador, and it’s always a touch more special, and more dignified, when it carries with it some physical manifestation of the nation and people it represents. The logo, the flag — or something as simple as a name.

When I was a kid, a poster of a Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) 747 cockpit hung on the wall in my bedroom. There was a placard on the instrument panel that said, Knut Viking. These same words would have appeared on the plane’s nose. To this day, every SAS aircraft carries a “Viking” designation.

I rode aboard a pair of South African Airways 747s some years ago. Outbound it was the Durban, and the Bloemfontein on my return, both cities in South Africa. If unsure, I needed only to check the wooden plaque near the upper deck stairs, emblazoned with a crest and scroll. I thought the plaque added an elegant, ocean-liner sort of touch.

When I flew cargo jets for DHL, one of my colleagues was killed in a small-plane crash. The airline named one of its DC-8s after him.

I miss the Austrian carrier Lauda Air, now part of Austrian Airlines. More eccentric than most, the airline remembered artists and musicians: there was the Gustav Klimt, the Miles Davis, the Freddie Mercury, and even a 737 named Frank Zappa. At Virgin Atlantic, which styles itself a bit more provocatively, you might have a seat on the Tubular Belle, the Barbarella, or maybe the Varga Girl.

For whatever reason, the tradition seems a lot more popular overseas than in the United States. You might spot one or two planes decaled in commemoration of some person or event (Delta has 757s named after Mariano Rivera, the Hall of Fame baseball star of the New York Yankees, and Joseph E. Lowery, a hero of the Civil Rights movement), but by and large the US majors have shied away.

One unfortunate exception is jetBlue, which took a clever idea — riffs on the color blue — and turned it into an insufferable, overindulgent routine that makes your eyes roll. I don’t advocate hurling tomatoes at Airbuses, but here are some deserving targets. I can live with Idlewild Blue (Idlewild is the old name for Kennedy Airport, jetBlue's home base), and even Betty Blue. But That’s What I Like About Blue, or Fancy Meeting Blue Here, or Bippity Boppity Blue are too much to take. What was I saying about dignity?

Some years back, United christened several jets in honor of its highest-mileage frequent flyers. Imagine not getting an upgrade on the very plane with your name on its nose.

And, while it wasn’t a commercial transport (and before somebody brings it up), we should probably mention the Spirit of St. Louis. Or, even more historically significant, we shan’t forget the Enola Gay.

Most famous of all, however, was L'Esprit de Moncton / Spirit of Moncton, the 19-seat Metroliner turboprop captained by a swashbuckling young fool in an ill-fitting uniform — the author of this story. Plane and pilot are seen in the historic photo below, taken on the apron in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1993.

Photo courtesy of Patrick Smith
Photo courtesy of Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot and the host of He lives near Boston. His book, COCKPIT CONFIDENTIAL, is a New York Times bestseller.

Featured image by Photo by Alberto Riva/TPG