Monday, September 15, 2008

Flight One

This post was updated in January, 2011.

Airline flight numbers have become increasingly complicated as the industry has matured. Three-digit flight numbers are the norm, and many of the flights we see these days have four-digit flight numbers. A standard joke is that the FAA (or Union) has recently done a study that shows that five out of four pilots (or controllers) is dyslexic; these four-digit flight numbers seem to enhance that quality and even invite mangling. Skywest and the recently-departed Jetlink have been the leaders at LAX. A few recent Skywest examples: 6525, 6552, 6225, 6252. Also: 5548, 5484, 5448, 5844. Jetlinks were even worse, as they used flights in the 7600s, 7700's, and 7800s. Sixes and sevens, although not looking anything alike, have a mysterious tendency to get interchanged when being spoken. Maybe it's the alliterative quality, but it doesn't happen near as much with fours and fives.

The hub-and-spoke scheduling system, combined with regional airline partners, is probably to blame for the increased complexity. A lot of routes are out-and-back flights, with alternating even/odd flight numbers; for instance Continental's service between IAH and LAX: flights into LAX are odd numbered (495, 595, 795), while the return flights are even (394, 594, 794). It is quite possible to have both on frequency at once, as one arrives and the other departs. When this happens, the opportunity for pilot or controller discombobulation escalates: It regularly happens that the pilot of one will answer radio calls for the other. A couple of variations: Numbers using fifty and sixty, which sound an awful lot alike on our low-fidelity radios. A particularly flagrant example, again from Skywest: 5516 and 6516, closely followed by 5512 and 6512. These two pairs show up around the crack of dawn most mornings, when nobody is at their best: The controllers are struggling to the end of their mid-shift, while the pilots aren't really even awake yet.

The other variation is numbers such as 69 and 169. WARNING - Old war story coming up! I actually saw a close call created by the confusion created between two United aircraft using these flight numbers: One took the clearance meant for the other, and the mistake didn't become apparent until it was about a mile from landing on the wrong runway - which was already occupied with a 747 waiting to depart AND two other aircraft crossing downfield. It was fairly late one night a few years ago, and I was the tower controller for the south side of the airport (runways 25 left and right). Arrivals were being sent to both runways, and there was a steady flow of departures as well. United 69 was assigned runway 25 right, and landed without incident. About ten or twelve miles behind was United 169, who was assigned runway 25 left. His data tag said runway 25 left, and I cleared him to land on runway 25 left. Meanwhile I had a Qantas 747 line up on runway 25 right, holding for departure while a couple of previous 25 left arrivals crossed the runway enroute to their gates. It was already a bit of a squeeze play, as I had to fit my Qantas in between two other aircraft departing from the north complex - and that controller had arrivals for both of his runways as well. In addition, I had to get my arrivals across the inboard runway so that there would be room for the next arrivals to exit their runway (as I mentioned, this was several years ago - before the space between the south side runways was widened and the center taxiway developed - there wasn't much room between the runways, and the Local controller had to be careful about not accumulating aircraft between the runways, lest subsequent arrivals have no where to get off). Anyway, I was closely monitoring the progress of my crossing aircraft on the ground radar (remember - it was about ten or eleven o'clock at night) so I could get Qantas rolling when suddenly the runway hold bars went up on 25 right. The ground radar in the tower cab, one of the main functions of which is to prevent runway incursions, is tied into the approach radar and projects what runway an aircraft is about to land on (or depart from). When it projects a landing or departing aircraft, bright hold bars are illuminated across every intersection on the display for that particular runway. These were what made me realize that United 169 was on short final for runway 25 RIGHT - not 25 left as he was supposed to be. The runways are so close together (even now) that the system only works about thirty seconds into the future; it was too late for him to move over to the correct runway, so I had to send him around. He went a few hundred feet over the top of the waiting 747 as the runway occupied alert message blared in the tower cab - a guaranteed way to make sure all eyes are looking at you!

Yet another version of callsign confusion occurs when two airlines show up at about the same time with the same flight number. This happens surprisingly often at LAX, which is served by at least fifty airlines - and several of them operate hubs here. A current example that comes to mind is United 58 and AirTran (callsign: Citrus) 58, both scheduled departures about ten minutes apart. This wasn't that big a deal until a week ago, when AirTran moved from Terminal 3 (on the north side) to Terminal 6 (on the south side, and shared with United to boot). At someplace busy like LAX this is almost unavoidable, although we do work with the airlines to change conflicting flight numbers (and thus creating flight peculiar numbers such as Skywest 16A - the new flight number for what used to be the Skywest 6516 mentioned above - but hey, it works!).

None of that, nifty though it may be, is what I meant for this column to be about: the other end of the numerical range - specifically ONE. Many airports don't have any flight ones - I don't recall any from any of my previous duty stations (MLU, MSY, MEM), and Air Force One doesn't count. Here at LAX, however, we've got at least seven flights numbered one. As I discussed above, all of these operate in the opposite direction as flight two. Most are international, but not all:

American One (AAL1) from JFK arrives at LAX around 11am, usually in a B767-200. The B762 is the shortest of the 767 variants; that's a UPS B767-300 (B763) on the parallel taxiway.

Air New Zealand One arrives in L.A. from London around 6pm, then continues on to Auckland, leaving here at 11pm. It's a 12-hour flight from L.A. to New Zealand in the B747-400. As you can see from the shadows, this is not actually ANZ1 in the photo - but you get the idea. The scheduling of several of these flights is not conducive to photography.

Eva One (EVA01) originates in L.A. and leaves for Taipei at 1:30 in the morning for the 13-hour flight. Eva used to fly a B747-400 (B744) on this route, but now they use the B777-300 (B773 or B77W). The B744's are now showing up as freighters. Above, the standard Eva paint scheme, with a Skywest CRJ7 about to touch down on runway 24 left. Below, the special 777-300ER (for which Eva was the launch customer) scheme. Contrast the Eva 777-300 with the shorter Korean 777-200 behind it.

The other domestic (if you can call it that) flight one is Hawaiian One (HAL1, although for a short time it was inexplicably HAL0001) from Los Angeles to Honolulu: A 5-hour flight that leaves at nine in the morning. When I first got to LAX, Hawaiian used cantankerous DC-10's on this route; thankfully those are all gone in favor of the B763's, although rumor has it that Hawaiian is planning on moving to Airbuses (ugh!). On the parallel taxiway is a Midwest (callsign: Midex) B717, which is the last vestige of the DC-9 series; a shortened MD-90, it was to be the MD-95 before Boeing bought out McDonnell-Douglas. They were built here in Douglas's now-extinct Long Beach factory, which has since made way for a huge condo development right on the edge of the Long Beach airport - not a stellar example of compatible airport or urban planning. Update: As was rumored, Hawaiian has now added A332s to the fleet; meanwhile Midex is no more.
Korean One (KAL001) arrives around 8:30 am from Tokyo, usually in a B777-200, as seen here, although I have seen B773's used as well, and occasionally a B744.

Northwest One (NWA1) leaves LAX at 1:30 pm for Tokyo, flight time about ten hours. The same plane will have arrived mid-morning as the return flight, Northwest Two. Northwest was the last to upgrade to the 747-400's on this route; when I started at LAX in 2002, they were still using 747-200's - which everyone else had already retired or converted to freighters. Northwest still uses B742's as freighters, although I've seen a couple leave here on their way to the bone yard. Northwest was also the last major carrier to use DC-10's in passenger service - even after Hawaiian had got rid of theirs. I saw Northwest DC-10's in Memphis as late as 2006, where they were used on the Amsterdam flight. They've now been replaced with Airbus 330's. Those Northwest DC-10's were so beat that I think Fedex didn't even want them - and yet they showed up again here at LAX last year, flying for ATA (Amtran) on military contracts. It was the loss of those contracts that doomed ATA overnight - literally. In the picture above, from about a year ago, the Airbus 380 can be seen in the background, arriving for a promotional visit. This shot is one of the few I took with a telephoto lens on the old Olympus camera. I used it only a day or two before quitting it - look at the optical distortion and lack of clarity. I've since upgraded to a Panasonic Lumix which has a Leica lens. The picture below wasn't taken with it though - but it does show a Delta 767-400 in the foreground; compare with the B762 and B763 shown earlier. By comparing the shadows of the wings, you can see that not just the fuselage of the -400 is longer; the wingspan is greater as well. Delta used to operate all three versions of the 767, but the -200's were all parked a couple of years ago in a fleet simplification plan. The only other carrier I know of that has all three versions of the 767 is Continental, and they don't bring any of them here too often. Update: We lost NWA1 when Northwest became part of Delta. The Narita route still operates as DAL283/DAL284, either as a B744 or an A332. The Northwest Cargo operation was another casualty of the Delta merger.

Last and least, well least-performing and least-liked at LAX anyhow, is Air Tahiti One (THT001). This flight leaves L.A. at one in the afternoon on an eight-hour flight to Tahiti in the Airbus 340-300. Curiously, Air France flies the same route, also using the A343, which is a slow-climbing dog regardless of whose paint it carries, although the Tahitis seem to be the worst. So bad, in fact, that departure control will sometimes call and stop departures when Tahiti gets airborne. A common trap for new controllers at LAX is launching the next departure too soon behind an A343 - allowing for wake turbulence separation isn't enough; you gotta give it a serious head start to prevent the next plane from catching up. This shot actually shows them in the flare over runway 24 left; that's an All Nippon (ANA) B773 in the Star Alliance paint scheme waiting for departure. Update: While Tahiti still operates this flight with A343s, Air France now uses B772s. No more Air France Airbuses at LAX!

Update: While we lost NWA1, we now have V Australia 1. VAU1 is flown with a B777-300 from Sydney, arriving shortly after sun up after some thirteen hours in the air.

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