It’s apparently a week of breakdowns, but I mean that in only the best way. Today, I’ve decided to delve into the world of airline flight numbers. Every airline can have up to 9,999 of them, and they use them in different ways. That sounds like a lot until you start thinking about all the codeshares around the world. Many airlines have found they’re running out.
Flight numbers are capped at only 4 digits, hard-coded from the early days of airline automation. You’d think by now that they’d figure out a way to add a 5th digit to flight numbers, but that is apparently the one thing that will break the entire airline ecosystem and plunge us all into a deep, dark nuclear winter. So, we just have to live with the limit that’s in place today.
Flight numbers are divvied up in blocks. Usually the lower numbers are saved for the flights the airline operates itself. Then there are blocks for each of the regional carriers, codeshare partners, and then some saved for charters and ferry flights.
So, what I did was dive into November 2022 Cirium schedule data to see how the flights were broken down for each of the big 3. To start, I went high level and broke them down into categories.
November 2022 Number of Marketing Flight Numbers by Category
I included the aggregate number of flights for the mainline-operated services to give you a sense of scale. But the differences in percentage breakdown here are what I find fascinating. American has 93 percent of the total allocated to flights operated either by mainline or regional partners. Delta is at 91 percent and United at 89 percent. That being said, Delta has a far higher proportion of mainline than the others thanks to those small narrowbodies.
Meanwhile, the rest of the pie is split in very distinct ways. American allocates most of the remainder to either its Alaska and JetBlue domestic codeshares or its joint venture codeshares. Delta and United don’t have the domestic codeshares. They both allocate the bulk of the remainders to their joint ventures, but Delta focuses more on bilateral one-off codeshares than on SkyTeam. United puts more effort into Star Alliance codeshares.
While this was fun, I decided it would be even better to break it down even further to show how partners break up. Let’s start with American’s November 2022 breakdown.
I suppose we can start with the regionals. I was actually surprised to see that Envoy is still at the top with the most flight numbers. Meanwhile, Mesa is in dead last. Keep in mind, this doesn’t necessarily fully correlate with flights. In theory, one regional could have all flight numbers handling a roundtrip while another might just have a one way. I didn’t go that far, but you get the point.
If we move up to the domestic codeshare, JetBlue is significantly bigger than Alaska. This makes sense considering how it’s the combined JetBlue/American operate in the Northeast that makes the partnership work. Alaska is more about traditional feed.
On the joint venture side, it’s no surprise to see the Europeans dominate, especially BA. There are just a lot more places to connect beyond those cities than in other regions.
Lastly, there’s the piddly oneworld and bilateral codeshares. For oneworld, Qatar is the only one of note. Everything else is very small. And for the bilaterals, you have Gol in there which is what you’d expect as American tries to regain its footing in South America after breaking up with LATAM. Then you also see representation from subsidiaries of joint venture partners, like Vueling and Jetstar.
Now let’s move on to Delta.
Delta has far fewer regionals tha the rest, but SkyWest is the big dog there with Endeavor close behind. On the joint venture side, Air France, KLM , and LATAM are all fairly similar. For LATAM, it may be odd to see such a large codeshare, but Delta really needs to rely on LATAM for feed so it puts on a code on a ton of flights. I didn’t think, however, that I’d see Korean as low as it is, but also… what’s missing here?
Remember, Aeromexico is an important joint venture partner, but since Mexico is currently rated as Category 2, Delta can’t codeshare with the airline. That will change sometime, and Delta will have to make some decisions and how to reallocate.
Within SkyTeam, the number one is former joint venture partner ITA. The rest are pretty small, including Czech, which is apparently still flying. And lastly, we have the bilaterals which are dominated by WestJet. You’ll remember that WestJet was going to be a joint venture partner, but the airlines walked away after the feds asked for too many concessions. The relationship remains, but it’s just not as potent as they’d hoped.
Finally, let’s take a look at United.
Delta and United do share one thing… they both have more regional flight numbers allocated to SkyWest than anyone else. Also look at those Air Wisconsin ones… remember those are going away and moving over to American at some point in 2023, but nothing has happened yet.
When it comes to the joint venture, if you didn’t guess Lufthansa would be the biggest, then that’s weird. Air Canada being right behind is also just what you’d think you’d see. I was actually shocked at just how low SWISS and Austrian were. Remember, this is just codeshares, so it doesn’t mean you can’t still buy connections between the two airlines. But it still is not what I’d expect to see.
Within Star Alliance, United has a whole lot of codeshare partners. Air China is the biggest, which is kind of a surprise since US-China flying is basically non-existent right now. I’m not sure why they bother with that much. Then there’s Copa and TAP Air Portugal.
On the bilateral side, look at Hawaiian hanging in there. It’s not much, but remember that’s all interisland flying right there. I’ll also note the subsidiaries of joint venture partners in this group with Eurowings and Air Dolomiti on the list.
Ok, ok, I know I said that was it, but I have one more for you. BONUS! Curious what it looks like on the other side of the Pond? Here’s Lufthansa.
The regional/wet lease madness at that airline is really apparent here. Note that Air Dolomiti, Eurowings, and Eurowings Discover show up there and on the Lufthansa Group codeshare side, because they perform both services. It’s a mind-numbing level of confusion.
United is again the big boy on the joint venture side, and like United, Lufthansa spreads its Star Alliance codeshares around. For Lufty, however, SAS is the big partner.
The bilateral side is very small, but I do find it fun to see which airlines Lufthansa has bunked up with for specific purposes.
Now I’m really done with this… though maybe I should look at… nevermind. I’m done.