Not all the flights are equal: meet number ones, or the kings of the skies

The Guru Blog - Numbers

For most passengers, the flight number is just one of the many information reported on their reservations and boarding cards, certainly less important than the booking code. Though, flight numbers have a history, follow specific rules and even have a hierarchy.

For example, flight numbers made by less than three digits (up to “99”) generally indicate long-haul services, although largest international airlines like British Airways (BA), Lufthansa (LH), Air France (AF), American Airlines (AA), United Airlines (UA) or Delta (DL), which operate hundreds of intercontinental rotations each week, use flight numbers in the 100s, 200s and even 300s range to “call” their long-range services.

In the US, four digits numbers in the range 3000 to 5999 typically represent regional affiliate flights, while those larger than 6000 are generally codeshare numbers for flights operated by a partner airline.

The A350 is star of Iberia’s long-haul fleet (Wikimedia / Adam Moreira)

Exceptions to these general rules exist, of course: for example, Spanish flag carrier Iberia (IB) indicates its long-range flights with numbers in the 6000 to 6999 range, while Italian carrier Alitalia traditionally calls its intercontinental services with numbers in the 600 to 799 range.

Though, the general rule remains: the lowest the flight number, the most important or most prestigious the flight. And because there is no whole number lower than 1, those flights sporting it are the so called ‘flagship services’, representing the highest grade of ‘aristocracy in commercial aviation’. Usually, airlines use it for flights to their most important destinations, or on most prestigious and most travelled routes. At least, so it was before the Covid pandemic disrupted commercial aviation, causing the stop of thousand of flights on each day across the world, including several ‘number ones’. So, the following is a picture of the situation as it was until March 2020, one we all hope will be back as soon as possible.

The city which traditionally welcomes the largest amount of ‘number 1’ flights is London, followed by New York and other global metropolis including Los Angeles and Tokyo. And among all number 1 services originating from or terminating at the UK city Capital, one unquestionably stands out: flight BA1 (or BA001), traditionally operated by flag carrier British Airways to New York.

One of Ba’s Concordes in the Landor livery (Wikimedia / Eduard Marmet)

Most of its prestige and fame is connected to the mighty Concorde, the aircraft on which that flight number was associated with, between 1991 and 2003. Curiously enough, British Airways did not apply that number to its flagship service as it started in November 1977: for about fourteen years, the London Heathrow (LHR) to New York (JFK) supersonic flight was indicated by the rather ubiquitous designation BA171. The legend of BA1 (or BA001) started in 1991 and for twelve years that unique flight number was a symbol of speed (though the fastest ever transatlantic flight, at 2 hours 52 minutes from JFK to LHR, was operated by BA002 on February  7,1996), style and glamour: the morning flight out of Heathrow (leaving LHR at 10.30am and landing in JFK at 9.25am) usually hosted industry and finance gurus, politician leaders, royalties, world-famous actors, singers, sportsmen and artists. BA001 indicated an all-around “status symbol” and a “must do” for the rich and the famous.

The all-Business A318 parked at JFK Terminal 5 (Wikimedia / Roland Arhelger)

The Concorde-operated BA001 flew for the last time westward across the Atlantic on October 23, 2003. But British Airways found the perfect way to keep alive the legend of its flagship service when on September 29, 2009 it started the only all-business transatlantic service operated by a legacy carrier. Even if the aircraft used, an Airbus A318, might appear rather diminutive (as for the speed as for shape and dimensions) if compared to the Concorde, the London City to New York JFK daily rotation was built according to Concorde’s style, regarding quality of service, food, wines and cabin exclusivity, with just 32 lie-flat seats fitted on a airplane model that normally accommodates more than 100 passengers. As a consequence of the Covid pandemic, though, the service has been suspended and the A318 sold. As of today, flight number 1 does not have a tenant in the British Airways schedule and it’s not clear if and when it will be back.

The only other Concorde operator, Air France, also applied the number 1 to its daily supersonic connection to the Big Apple from 1978 to 2003, but once the aircraft was retired from service, it did not revive the AF1 flight number, maybe in a sort of tribute to world’s fastest commercial jet.

Qantas’ A380 lifting off from London Heathrow (Wikimedia / Allen Watkin)

Apart from BA’s London to New York service, some 40 “number 1” flights exist today around the world. The most notable among these QF1, operated by Australian carrier Qantas (QF) from Sydney (SYD) to London Heathrow, along the so-called “Kangaroo-route”. The route was flown for the first time on December 1, 1947 by a Lockheed Constellation with stops in Darwin, Singapore, Calcutta, Karachi, Cairo and Tripoli and passengers staying overnight in Singapore and Cairo. More than 60 years later, the flight is operated using the largest-ever built commercial aircraft, the Airbus A380, and only the stop in Singapore has survived with an overall journey time of around 22-23 hours.

Malaysia flies its A350s into London Heathrow (Wikimedia / Sidowpknbkhihj)

Being the former Capital of the largest Empire ever built in human history and as one of the undisputable Capitals of contemporary world, London is the “natural destination” for many “number 1” flights. Beside QF1, these include Emirates EK1 from Dubai (Airbus A380), Qatar Airways QR1 from Doha (Boeing 777-300ER), Delta Airlines DL1 from New York JFK (Boeing 767-400), Westjest WS1 from Calgary (Boeing 787-9 to Gatwick), Malaysia Airlines MK1 from Kuala Lumpur (A350-900), Biman Bangladesh Airlines BG1 (Boeing 777-300ER) and, until a few months ago, Air New Zealand NZ1 from Auckland via Los Angeles (Boeing 777-300ER). Air Canada (AC), the national airline of a Country which is part of the Commonwealth and whose Head of State is Queen Elizabeth II, “betrayed” the Crown, opting for Tokyo Haneda (HND) instead of London to put the number 1 besides its “AC” IATA code.

El Al’s Boeing 787-9 in a retro livery (Wikimedia / Adam Moreira)

Apart from London, only two other European cities have the privilege of receiving a “number 1” flight: Frankfurt (FRA), served by Etihad EY1 (Boeing 777-300ER) from Abu Dhabi (AUH), and Madrid (MAD), where Aeromexico AM1 non-stop Boeing 787-9 arrives on a daily basis from Mexico City (MEX).

New York (JFK) is the final destination for Israeli carrier El Al’s flight LY1 from Tel Aviv (Boeing 787-9) and Turkish Airlines TK1 (Boeing 777-300ER), while Finnair (AY1, A350-900) opted for Los Angeles (LAX) and Polish flag carrier LOT (LO1, Boeing 787-9) for Chicago (ORD). Remaining in the US, All Nippon Airways chose the Nation’s Capital Washington (DUL) as the departure point of its NK1 Boeing 777-300ER non-stop service to Tokyo Haneda, while its main competitor on the Japanese market, Japan Airlines, selected San Francisco (SFO) as the origin of its JL1 service by Boeing 777-300ER, always to Tokyo Haneda.

AA flies 3-class A321s on US transcontinental services (Wikimedia / Glenn Beltz)

The same did Singapore Airlines (SQ), choosing the Northern California city (which hosts a huge Asian population) for its SQ1 service to Changi (via Hong Kong) operated by another Boeing 777-300ER. Similarly, United Airlines (UA) put the number 1 to its Boeing 787-9 direct connection from SFO to Singapore (SIN), while another US major, American Airlines, opted for the apparently much less glamorous New York JFK-Los Angeles route to spend the AA1 flight number: the service is operated by a three-class (First, Business and Economy) Airbus A321-200 with lie flat beds in the two forward cabins, well worth a “number 1” in point of onboard comfort and amenities.

Notwithstanding its huge global network, Korean Air (KE) uses the ‘1’ to number one of its daily connections from Seoul (ICN) to Tokyo Haneda, a regional service operated by A330-300. And other carriers even opted to spend the prestigious “1” for domestic flights: the list includes Scandinavian Airlines SK1 from Lulea to Stockholm (Boeing 737-800 or Airbus A320neo) and Lufthansa LH1 from Hamburg to Frankfurt (Airbus A319, A320 or A321). Is this to be intended as understatement or chauvinism? (Photo header Wikimedia Commons / Brian)

Have you ever travelled on a ‘number 1’ flight? If yes, with which airline and which route? And how was your experience? Let the Guru know!

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