CALL SIGNS AND IDENTIFICATION CODES FOR CIVIL AIRCRAFT

Bill's  Radio Site
formerly the THE MARITIMES SCANNING SITE

Last updated October 1, 2012


 

Aircraft are identified on the radio, on the web and in timetables in a number of different ways.  

Here are the details:

1. REGISTRATION MARKS (OR INTERNATIONAL CALL SIGNS OR CALL LETTERS)

All civil aircraft have registration marks.   In theory, in most cases, these are equivalent to the official radio call letters of the aircraft as a radio station, but even aircraft without radios will have these marks.   In today's world these registration marks are used in an obvious way only by non-airline aircraft.     The military equivalent of these registration marks are the serial numbers commonly seen painted on military aircraft; however it may be true in some jurisdictions that military aircraft also have registration marks that are just not actually painted on the machine.

Standard Pattern

For almost all countries these registration marks or call letters relate closely to the International Telecommunications Union (UN) radio call sign allocation table.  

The official rules of the ITU dictate that aircraft radio stations, and therefore by convention, aircraft themselves, should be identified by a 5-letter call sign or registration mark.   Most countries do follow this convention.  Out of approximately 200 jurisdictions, about 170 do follow this method.   For example Canada assigns a 5-letter registration to all civil aircraft and these begin with CF or CG.   An example is CGMJT, which is normally written as C-GMJT.     British aircraft invariably are marked with G-xxxx, such as G-TRGD.    This follows the international radio allocation table for call signs.    The way Canada marks its aircraft might imply that anything that begins with C is Canadian but this is not true.   

The normal convention for countries that do not "own" a complete series of one letter is to indicate the markings this way: CG-MJT or CC-YTR, because in these cases CG is Canadian and CC is Chilean.  Some years ago Canada switched from the CF-xxx  model to the C-Fxxx model which does appear to be a presumptuous move.   The following countries also use call letters beginning with "C" : Chile, Cuba, Morocco, Bolivia, Uruguay, Nauru, Andorra, Cyprus, Gambia, Bahamas and Mozambique.  Any one of them has equal rights, so to speak, to identify its aircraft with C-xxxx, as long as they use their allocated character in the second spot!

Having said that, Canada toes the line much better than the 30+ countries that do not use the 5-letter convention at all!  

American Type

The USA formerly used aircraft markings of the 5-letter type but they appear to be unused since the 1930's.   All one can say now is that the US markings begin with N followed by at least two numbers, and then by various combinations of numbers and letters, which seem to add up to a total of four to seven characters in all.    Very often in modern times the final two characters are a pair of letters that relate to the owners corporate name.     An example for Western Pacific Airlines would be N232WP. Americans refer to their registration marks as "N-numbers".

Russian Pattern

The Russian pattern is a letter or two followed by numbers.   For Russia itself the first two characters are RA.  As you can see from this list, quite a few countries use this pattern, and of these there are several that begin their registration marks with letters that are not theirs according to the ITU table of call sign prefixes.  These have been marked with a double asterisk (**).


China       B  (BH for Hong Kong, BM for Macau)  Taiwan also uses this overall series.
Bolivia      CP
Armenia  EK
Moldova  ER
Belarus   EW
Kyrgyzstan EX
Tajikistan EY
Turkmenistan EZ
S. Korea  HL
Panama  HP
Saudi Arabia HZ (but does have some 5-letter)
Japan JA
 
Mongolia JU
Peru OB
** N Korea P
Uzbekistan UK
Kazakhstan UN
Georgia 4L
Azerbaijan 4K
Ukraine UR
** Vietnam VN
Marshall Islands V7
Cambodia XU

Other exceptions to the five letter system:

Dominican Republic  HI # # # Letter Letter
Colombia  HK # # # Letter
** Philippines RPC # # #
** Zimbabwe Z plus four letters
Venezuela YV # # Letter
Cuba  CU then T or H, then numbers.

 

2. FLIGHT NUMBERS

Scheduled passenger and cargo airliners are generally identified by a flight number.  This flight number is used in concert with the airline name or code or voice call sign to indicate the route and timing of a regular flight, regardless of the identity of the particular aircraft flying it at any particular time.    For example Westjet's flight from Halifax to Calgary, leaving every morning at around 7:30 is identified on air and practically everywhere else as Westjet 229 even though the actual aircraft varies from day to day.   Behind the scenes the civil registration marks of the particular aircraft are still used on the flight plans, and you might hear the clearance controller asking the pilot for the "civil" which means the registration marking on the aircraft as described above.

Flight numbers do have some variety in a few cases.   This always relates to another airline being involved.  For example all of the Jazz flights operating as Air Canada Express have two flight number variations.    Jazz aircraft will identify on the air as Jazz 861 or similar, but on timetables and departure boards used by the public that will appear as Air Canada 8861.   Most airlines do not do that however, so that for example Republic Airlines 3336 from Halifax to Philadelphia will appear as US Airways 3336 with no change in the numerical part. 

A further variation in flight numbers occurs with code sharing.   Generally this will not be seen on FlightAware or planefinder but is seen in airline timetables and sometimes on departure boards.     If United and Westjet are code sharing on the Halifax to Calgary flight mentioned above it could be published additionally as United 7932 or similar (this is a fictional example) but it would never be used on-air.  Occasionally some of these do appear on FlightAware with the giveaway being that two flights with the same aircraft type leave at the same moment and are scheduled to reach the same destination at the same time.   This almost certainly means that there really is just one flight with one of the flights indicated being a sort of phantom, code-share designation for the real flight.

 

AIRLINE CODES and CALL SIGNS

In the preceding section I wrote as if the flight number consisted only of numbers when in fact they consist of the numbers preceded by the Airline name or code.  These come in three varieties:  ICAO codes, IATA codes, and oral call signs or names.

ICAO Airline Codes

All scheduled airlines use flight numbers that are made up of an airline code and a number.   It is necessary for there to be distinct codes or abbreviations for all airlines and similar organizations.    The ICAO codes consist of three letters with no duplications in the world.  Unlike airport codes that have regional and national prefixes, the airline codes have no relationship to the country of ownership or operation, so that while ACA is Air Canada, AZA is Alitalia.   I am not certain how the process works but it is obviously not arbitrary, in the sense that the airlines do get to apply for something that relates to the airline name.    In FlightAware and planefinder you will see all commercial flights identified by ICAO codes.    Some corporate and military flights also utilize such flight codes. 

IATA Airline Codes

The IATA uses two letters (or a number and a letter) for airline codes.   These are the abbreviations or codes you see on airline timetables, on tickets, and on departure boards.   It is one of the mysteries of life why there are two different systems, but there are!    Because there are only so many two character combinations it is possible for these to be duplicated in far-apart regions of the world.  

Spoken Call Signs

Call Signs in this context refer to the spoken name of the airline, or a recognized substitute for that name.  These are used on air for communications with Air Traffic Control and similar entities.   In most cases the call sign is at least part of the name of the company.   An example is "United" or "Air Canada" or "Delta" or "Air France" with the "Airlines" part if there is one left off.  In a few cases the spoken call sign is a different word entirely, such as "Speedbird" for British Airways or "Brickyard" for Republic Airlines.  

Note that the military may also use ICAO airline codes and flight numbers for transport aircraft, and all military aircraft use spoken call signs.  In the case of military transports they will sound much like the airline type.  Examples are "Canforce" for Royal Canadian Air Force transports and "Reach" for the USAF counterparts.   In North American skies at least, most foreign air force transports identify by the name of the air force, such as "Norwegian Air Force".     Combat type military aircraft use spoken call signs that vary with the squadron or formation to which they are attached or in fact can vary from day to day.

AERO CALL SIGNS and AIRLINE CODES
 

Codes and Call Signs of Airlines and other operators that fly into Maritimes airports (or have recently) or overfly the region on Trans-Atlantic routes.  

Those that fly into our airports rather than simply overfly are indicated in yellow.  Some of these no longer fly into our airports but recently did, or they are seasonal in nature.   This category does not include overflying operators whose aircraft have landed for emergencies or technical difficulties but does include those that stop regularly for fuel.

This list is far from being complete but does include most of those operating over the skies of Nova Scotia either domestically or oceanic.

Note that on occasion many overseas airlines or air forces fly over our region for non-regular flights including such things as delivery flights from North American manufacturers.

 

ICAO IATA OPERATOR COUNTRY COMMENT ON-AIR CALL IF VARIES FROM AIRLINE NAME
AAL AA AMERICAN USA    
AAR OZ ASIANA A/L S KOREA    
ABW RU AIRBRIDGE CARGO RUSSIA    
ABX GB ABX AIR USA   ABEX
ACA AC AIR CANADA CANADA    
ACX   AIR CHARTERS (PARAIR)      
AEW VV AEROSVIT UKRAINE    
AIC AI AIR INDIA INDIA    
AFL SU AEROFLOT RUSSIA    
AFR AF AIR FRANCE FRANCE    
AMX AM AEROMEXICO MEXICO    
ASQ EV EXPRESSJET AIRLINES (EX ATLANTIC S.E. USA FLIES AS DELTA AND UNITED ACEY
AWE US US AIRWAYS USA   CACTUS
AWI ZW AIR WISCONSIN USA FLIES AS US AIRWAYS  
AZA AZ ALITALIA ITALY    
BAW BA BRITISH AIRWAYS UK   SPEEDBIRD
BEL SN BRUSSELS A/L BELGIUM   BEELINE
BER AB AIR BERLIN GERMANY    
BOS EC OPEN SKIES UK   MISTRAL
BOX 3S AEROLOGIC GERMANY   GERMAN CARGO
CFC   RCAF TRANSPORT CANADA   CANFORCE
           
CFG DE CONDOR FLUGDIENST GERMANY   CONDOR
CHQ RP CHAUTAUQUA USA FLIES AS DELTA  
CKS K4 KALITTA AIR USA   CONNIE
CLX CV CARGOLUX LUXEMBOURG    
CRL SS CORSAIR FLY FRANCE   CORSAIR
CJA C6 CANJET CANADA    
CJC 9L COLGAN USA FLIES AS UNITED  
CJT W8 CARGOJET CANADA    
COM OH COMAIR USA FLIES AS DELTA  
CUB CU CUBANA CUBA    
DAL DL DELTA USA    
DHK   DHL  UK   WORLD EXPRESS
DLH LH LUFTHANSA GERMANY    
EIA   EVERGREEN INTL USA    
EIN EI AER LINGUS IRELAND   SHAMROCK
ELY LY EL AL ISRAEL    
ETD EY ETIHAD AIRWAYS UAE  (ABU DHABI)    
ETH ET ETHIOPIAN ETHIOPIA    
EVA BR EVA AIR TAIWAN   EVA
FDX   FEDEX USA    
FIF OF AIR FINLAND FINLAND    
FIN AY FINNAIR FINLAND    
FLE   FLAIR AIR CANADA    
FLG 9E PINNACLE AIRLINES USA FLIES AS UNITED FLAGSHIP
GEC   LUFTHANSA CARGO GERMANY    
GGN ZO AIR GEORGIAN (AIR ALLIANCE) CANADA FLIES AS AIR CANADA GEORGIAN
GSM Y2 FLY GLOBESPAN      
GTI   ATLAS AIR USA   GIANT
IBE IB IBERIA SPAIN    
ICE FI ICELANDAIR ICELAND   ICE AIR
ICL 5C CAL CARGO AIRLINES ISRAEL   CAL
1SS IG MERIDIAN fly ITALY   MERAIR
JAI 9W JET AIRWAYS INDIA    
JAS JD JAPAN AIR SYSTEM JAPAN    
JBU B6 JETBLUE USA    
JZA QK JAZZ AIR CANADA MOSTLY FLIES AS AIR CANADA JAZZ
KAC KU KUWAIT AIRWAYS KUWAIT   KUWAITI
KFA W8 KELOWNA FLIGHTCRAFT CANADA FLIES AS PUROLATOR FLIGHTCRAFT
KLM KL KLM ROYAL DUTCH NETHERLANDS    
LOT LO LOT POLISH A/L POLAND   LOT
MAL   MORNINGSTAR AIR EXPRESS CANADA FLIES AS FEDEX  
MES XJ MESABA USA    
MON ZB MONARCH UK    
MPE 5T CANADIAN NORTH CANADA   EMPRESS
MPH MP MARTINAIR NETHERLANDS    
MSR MS EGYPTAIR (EX MISRAIR) EGYPT    
NAO   NORTH AMERICAN A/W USA    
OAE   OMNI AIR EXPRESS USA   OMNI
PA   POLAR AIR ARGO     POLAR
PIA   PAKISTAN INTL AIRLINES PAKISTAN    
POE PD PORTER AIRLINES USA    
POT   POLET CARGO RUSSIA    
PVJ   PRIVAJET MALTA    
QTR QR QATAR QATAR    
RAM AT ROYAL AIR MAROC MOROCCO    
RCH   US AIR FORCE TRANSPORT USA   REACH
           
RJA RJ ROYAL JORDANIAN JORDAN   JORDANIAN
RPA YX REPUBLIC AIRLINES USA FLIES AS US AIRWAYS BRICKYARD
RZO SP SATA (AIR AZORES) PORTUGAL    
SAA SA SOUTH AFRICAN AIRWAYS S. AFRICA   SPRINGBOK
SAS SK SCANDINAVIAN SWEDEN    
SIA SQ SINGAPORE SINGAPORE    
SLQ   SKYLINK EXPRESS      
SPM PJ AIR SAINT PIERRE FRANCE    
SPR PB PROVINCIAL AIRLINES CANADA   SPEEDAIR
SQC   SINGAPORE CARGO SINGAPORE   SINGCARGO
SVA SV SAUDI ARABIAN SAUDI ARABIA   SAUDIA
SWG WG SUNWING CANADA    
SWR SR SWISS INTL SWITZERLAND    
TAP   TRANS. AEREOS PORTUG. PORTUGAL   AIR PORTUGAL
TAY 3V TNT AIRWAYS BELGIUM   QUALITY
TCF S5 SHUTTLE AMERICA USA FLIES AS DELTA AND UNITED  
TCS TS AIR TRANSAT CANADA    
           
TCV   TRANS. AEREOS CABO VERDE CAPE VERDE   CABOVERDE
TCX MT THOMAS COOK UK   KESTREL
TCY   TWIN CITIES AIR SERVICE USA PORTLAND-YARMOUTH  
TFF   TALON AIR USA CORPORATE AIRCRAFT TALON FLIGHT
TGO   TRANSPORT CANADA CANADA Federal Govt.  Owns most airports but does not operate them  
THY TK TURKISH TURKEY    
TOM BY THOMSON AIRWAYS  UK    
TSC TS AIR TRANSAT CANADA   TRANSAT
TSO UN TRANSAERO RUSSIA   TRANS SOVIET
TWN   AVIALEASING UZBEKISTAN   TWINARROW
UAE EK EMIRATES UAE (DUBAI)    
UAL UA UNITED USA    
UPS   UNITED PARCEL SERVICE USA   UPS 
UZB HY UZBEKISTAN AIRWAYS UZBEKISTAN FLIES JFK ONLY UZBEK
VAL VC VOYAGEUR AIRLINES CANADA    
VIR VS VIRGIN ATLANTIC UK    
WJA WS WESTJET CANADA    
           
WOA   WORLD AIRWAYS USA    
XLF SE XL AIRWAYS FRANCE   STARWAY
XPE   AMIRA AIR     EXPERT
    NS DEPARTMENT OF NATURAL RESOURCES CANADA Fire control helicopters operating within Nova Scotia PATROL
    NAVCAN CANADA Canada's provider of air traffic control and aeronavigation services.  Their aircraft are engaged in monitoring and alignment of navigation aids. NAVCAN
    US NAVY TRANSPORT USA   CONVOY
    ROYAL AIR FORCE TRANSPORT UK   ASCOT

MILITARY

The following are unit specific call signs used by military aircraft flying within the Maritimes or commonly overflying the region.   There are many more American overflights, not listed here.   Note that transport aircraft commonly use civil type call signs as included above.  

ETHYL

US Air Force air to air refueling tankers (depends on unit). Not all refuelers use the Ethyl callsign.

TUSKER

Cdn Armed Forces 413 Rescue Sqn Greenwood

HUNTER

Cdn Armed Forces 404 MP Sqn Greenwood

TALON

Cdn Armed Forces 423 Heli Sqn Shearwater

MERLIN

Cdn Armed Forces 406 Heli Sqn Shearwater

PATHFINDER

Cdn Armed Forces 415 MP Sqn Greenwood

CASEY

Cdn Armed Forces 405 MP Sqn Greenwood

WOLF

Cdn Armed Forces 403 Army Heli Sqn Gagetown

CHEETAH

Top Aces (contractor to air force) Alpha Jets

BRUISER

Top Aces (contractor to air force) Westwinds