Business | World | Nation

When Bad Things Happen To Planes, Flight Codes Get 'Retired'

NPR | March 13, 2014 10:17 a.m.

Contributed By:

Scott Neuman

The charred tail section of Delta Flight 191 sites near the runway at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, in Aug. 1985, after it crashed on approach. Following common industry practice, Delta quickly retired the '191' designation.

The charred tail section of Delta Flight 191 sites near the runway at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, in Aug. 1985, after it crashed on approach. Following common industry practice, Delta quickly retired the '191' designation.

Carlos Osorio, AP

Malaysia Airlines announced Thursday that it would stop using two flight numbers associated with the airliner that went its airliner that disappeared over the Gulf of Thailand on March 8, following a long-standing practice of retiring codes after similar tragedies.

MH370, used to designate the Malaysia Airlines flights that mysteriously vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people aboard, will no longer be used after Friday as a “mark of respect” for the passenger and crew. MH371, which is the code used for the return flight, will also be retired. The flights will now be known by the designations MH318 (Kuala Lumpur to Beijing) and MH319 (Beijing to Kuala Lumpur).

As The Wall Street Journal reports, “Airlines often retire flight numbers following fatal crashes so as not to evoke negative emotions among other passengers and crew. This is particularly true with high-profile accidents, say aviation analysts.”

For example, Korean Airlines no longer has a Flight 007 in deference to the airliner that was shot down by Russian fighter jets in 1983 after allegedly straying into Soviet airspace. Likewise, Delta Air Lines retired Flight 191 after a Lockheed TriStar with that designation was caught in a microburst on approach at Dallas-Fort Worth and slammed into the ground, killing a total of 136 people, although 27 passengers survived.

More recently, Asiana Airlines announced in August, a month after the crash of its Flight 214 on approach to San Francisco killing three passengers and injured 181, that it would change the flight number. Airline spokesman Suh Ki-Won was quoted by The Los Angeles Times as saying that Flight 214 from Seoul to San Francisco would be renumbered to Flight 212 and Flight 213, from San Francisco to Seoul, would change to Flight 211.

“The reason for the change is that many people remember the flight number,” he said, adding that the airline didn’t want its customers to have “that kind of image,” according to the Times.

Salon.com notes that “the decision-making process behind flight number retirement, however, is completely opaque. … A review of historic accidents, however, suggests that the decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, seemingly guided in part by how familiar the public is with the flight number.”

In 2011, United Airlines blamed a computer glitch for inadvertently reactivating retired flight codes 93 and 175, both retired after those flights were hijacked on September 11, 2001. United Flight 93 was commandeered en route to San Francisco and crashed near Shanksville, Pa., killing all 44 people aboard after passengers tried unsuccessfully to regain control of the aircraft from hijackers. And Flight 175 from Boston to Los Angeles crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center, killing all 65 passengers and crew.

The LA Times says of the computer foul up three years ago: “The flight numbers were assigned by a computer … for sales of future flights, said airline spokesman Rahsaan Johnson. Early Wednesday, airline officials noticed the error and immediately removed them from the system.”

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