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Speedbird, Cactus and Dynasty: The curious world of airline nicknames

Hugh Morris
BA has one of the world's best known call signs - istock

It may not come as a surprise to learn that much of air traffic control chit-chat is technical mumbo jumbo, acronyms and numbers. 

Indeed, Telegraph Travel has written before about the conversations that go on above our heads to ensure that the tens of thousands of planes in the air at any given time make it to their destination safely.

But one might think that the very name of each airline is sacred and straightforward.

Think again, for the world’s carriers from American Airlines to Zambian Airways instead have nicknames, used only by those in headsets who organise the skies. 

Known as call signs, these names are used to distinguish one airline’s aircraft from another when communicating with or about commercial aircraft; guiding a plane in to land, for example, or permitting it clearance to take off. Think “Speedbird 303, you are cleared to land” etc.

Otherwise known as telephony designators, these call signs must bear some semblance to the name of the airline - or at least be immediately recognisable - and be different than any other. Some are the product of historical references, some comedic and some bizarre. 

What do you reckon Aer Lingus's call sign is? Credit: istock

Below, we list some of the more entertaining or unusual ways in which the world’s airlines have rebranded themselves for conversations in the sky. NB: some are quite boring. Ryanair is Ryanair, Emirates is Emirates, KLM is KLM. 

Speedbird - British Airways

BA’s call sign is arguably the most famous. The airline inherited Speedbird from its predecessor BOAC when it merged with British European Airways in 1974. Speedbird was the name of the BOAC logo designed in 1932, and has been its identifier in the air ever since. 

Shamrock - Aer Lingus

Ireland’s flag carrier bears an image of its national symbol on all of its planes so it is only right that its nickname be shamrock. 

Springbok - South African Airways

A similar story at the southern tip of Africa, where South Africa’s national carrier is called Springbok in the air, after its national animal. Its rugby team is also known thus. 

Cactus - US Airways

Now-defunct US Airways - it merged into American Airlines in 2015 - was previously called American West. Using its full name as its callsign, controllers complained it was too similar to other carriers with “west” in the name - Southwest, for example - and wondered if it should be changed. The airline held an employee competition to choose a new callsign and Cactus was selected. 

Redwood - Virgin America 

Virgin’s US airline gained its Redwood call sign from its placement in the San Francisco bay area, where the trees of the same name grow plentifully. 

Cathay Dragon, also known as Dragonair Credit: istock

Dragon - Cathay Dragon

A subsidiary of Hong Kong carrier, Cathay Pacific, Cathay Dragon is known as Dragon, which let’s be honest is a cool nickname. Air Wales, an airline from Wales that is no longer used to be called Red Dragon.

Airfrans - Air France

The French national carrier has its callsign as Airfrans because its the phonetic spelling of its name, making it easier for air traffic controllers around the world to use. 

Dynasty - China Airlines

The national carrier of China takes its history seriously and has been known accordingly as Dynasty since its inception.

Off to Xanadu with Air Asia X Credit: istock

Jedi - Jet Story

Jet Story is a Polish business aircraft charter company with a handful of private jets and one of the most eye-catching call signs around. 

Xanadu - Air Asia X

The medium- to long haul- arm of Air Asia, as led by Tony Fernandes, has a romantic callsign in the form of Xanadu, the old-fashioned name for the city of Shangu immortalised in poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. 

Sultan - Abu Dhabi Amri Flight

Abu Dhabi Amiri Flight is the organisation in charge of the air travel needs of the UAE government. So any service designated Sultan likely means there’s an important person from the UAE on board.  

Various - RAF

The RAF use a number of different call signs, from RAFAIR for general flights, Air Cadet for training, Vortex for helicopters and Kitty for positioning flights.

Easy - EasyJet

EasyJet’s UK operation is known as Easy, while its European flights, based in Austria, are known as Alpine and its Swiss services as Topswiss. 

With thanks to Aerosavvy for some tips.

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