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What are call signs used for in aviation industry?

Updated: May 26, 2020

An aircraft call sign is defined as a group of alphanumeric characters used to identify an aircraft in air-ground communications. In other words, when pilots and air traffic controllers communicate on the radio, the airline’s call sign is always used along with the flight number; ex: “CROATIA 632.”. This helps assure that communication is clear.


For a long time, a flight’s commercial flight number and call sign were the same apart from the initial IATA/ICAO identifier. As the number of flights worldwide increased airlines and air navigation service providers looked for ways to reduce call sign similarity that leads to call sign confusion and possible safety issues. Nowadays call sign may or may not match the flight number and some airlines have radio call signs that differ from the airline’s name.

Here is our TOP 10 aviation callsigns:

10. Velocity – Virgin Australia

An Australian airline is one of the largest airlines operating in Australia, and is the largest airline by fleet size to use the Virgin brand. It commenced services on 31 August 2000 as Virgin Blue, with two aircraft on a single route.

9. Waterski – Trans States Airlines

US regional carrier, operated as United Express and US Airways Express. The call sign “Waterski” originated in the early 1980’s. Due to the impact of the 2019–20 COVID-19 pandemic on travel demand, the airline decided to cease operations on April 1, 2020. The final flight was United Express Flight 4695 from Springfield, Missouri to Denver, Colorado on April 1, 2020.

8.  Redwood – Virgin America

Virgin America was based in the San Francisco bay area. The airline’s nearness to the famous California redwood forests and its red logo made “Redwood” as one of the most outstanding call signs. The airline primarily focused on operating low-fare service between cities on the West Coast and other major metropolitan areas, with higher quality service. On January 11, 2018, Virgin America began operating under the Alaska Airlines.

7.  Dynasty – China Airlines

China Airlines is the national carrier of the Republic of China, commonly known as Taiwan. It is headquartered in Taipei Taoyuan International Airport and operates approximately 1400 flights per week to 102 cities across Asia, Europe, North America, and Oceania.

6.  Smart Cat – Tigerair Taiwan

Another airline, with a cool call sign, coming from the Republic of China, also known as Taiwan, is Tigerair Taiwan. This is a low-cost carrier based at Taipei Taoyuan International Airport. It was the first international carrier to have the word „Taiwan“ as part of a corporate livery or a company name.

5.  Bearskin – Bearskin Airlines

Bearskin Airlines is a regional airline based in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada. It is a division of Perimeter Aviation which operates in northern Ontario and Manitoba. The only aircraft they operate are Fairchild Swearingen Metroliners.

4.  Cactus – US Airways

US Airways (formerly USAir) was a major American airline that ceased to operate on its own when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted only a single operating certificate (SOC) for US Airways and American Airlines on April 8, 2015. „Cactus“  as a call sign was chosen by the employees on the contest for a new callsign that was held by the company. The main reason for this contest was the request by the FAA to change the previous call sign „America west“ because it was too close to other airlines ending in „west“.

3.  Springbok – South African Airways

It is the state-owned flag carrier airline of South Africa that operates hub-and-spoke network, linking over 40 local and international destinations across Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, South America, and Oceania from its base at O. R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. The airline joined Star Alliance in April 2006 and it became the first African carrier to sign with one of the three airline alliances.

2.  Shamrock – Aer Lingus

The name of this carries is an anglicisation of the Irish "aerloingeas" which means "air fleet". Aer Lingus is the national flag carrier of Ireland, worldwide known as „Shamrock“.  One interesting thing is the fact that Aer Lingus is the only airline in the world to name their aircrafts after Catholic Irish Saints. The carrier started this tradition after World War 2 to help promote national pride.

1.  Speedbird – British Airways

Our favorite airline call sign is definitely "Speedbird". The original "Speedbird" was designed in 1932 for Imperial Airways by Theyre Lee-Elliott. It became a design classic and it has been used by the airline and its successors (British Overseas Airways Corporation and British Airways). The term "Speedbird" is still the call sign for British Airways and this year it is celebrating 70 years since it was used for the first time.

Here is a example of communication of two pilots from BA, two Speedbirds with different flight number:

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