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Why don't they just say 'people' on board, why souls? What is the origin of this term? I'm thinking it comes from sailing as I think I've heard that term in reference to crews out at sea, but I'm not a sailor so I don't know.

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Because the autopilots don't have souls... not yet anyway. – RBarryYoung Mar 30 '14 at 22:37
@RBarryYoung Except Otto. – David Richerby Mar 31 '14 at 0:08
I suggest a secular alternative as number of hearts on board, if anyone needs. – user13107 Mar 31 '14 at 7:24
@user13107 no one mentioned religion, although as a Christian I believe everyone has a soul, your alternative wouldnt satisfy the disambiguation of transporting dead persons or people. – BigHomie Mar 31 '14 at 10:13
Is "souls" used outside the United States? I've never heard it used in Australia. It sounds odd and has superstitious connotations. – Marky Mark Apr 1 '15 at 0:14
up vote 29 down vote accepted

The primary reason is probably that it ensures there is no confusion between passengers, crew, or infants. Technically, "passengers" is the number of seats occupied, "crew" is both the pilots and flight attendants on duty. So any small children brought on as "lap children" will not be included in the "passengers" count, but should be included in the total number of people on board.

I found another interesting point over on the English Stack Exchange site, which is that dead bodies are sometimes transported as well. In this case, some might consider these "people" as well. Also, in an incident, the bodies should not be confused with the regular passengers.

So, "souls" effectively communicates the number of living humans on board.

There may certainly be holdovers from the maritime influences on aviation as well.

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Does the number of souls include (live) animals being transported on the plane? – Fixed Point Mar 30 '14 at 18:19
Interesting, never gave this any thought before. Do unborn children count as souls on board too then? – Brian Knoblauch Mar 30 '14 at 18:26
@BrianKnoblauch without getting into the theological implications, no: Unborn children are not counted as souls on-board for ATC & Rescue purposes. Neither are pets (everyone knows cats are instruments of the devil), but if a pilot has time to inform ATC that there are live animals on board it's good to convey. A response to "Say souls on board" might therefore be N12345 has 19 souls, 2 cadavers, and a dog. – voretaq7 Mar 30 '14 at 23:05
and corpses are on the cargo manifest, not on the passenger manifest. So no confusion there either. (got that while working for the cargo department of an airline for a bit long ago). – jwenting Apr 4 '14 at 8:36
Corpses are only on the cargo manifest if they were dead when loaded. What happens to the "souls" count if someone dies (e.g. of a heart-attack) in-flight, and then the plane runs into unrelated(?) trouble? – Roger Lipscombe Nov 25 '14 at 18:57

I agree with what fooot said. Also, I would add, as someone to volunteers in search & rescue (Civil Air Patrol) as a mission pilot, when you hear the word "souls," it adds some urgency and seriousness to the handling of any emergency. When an air traffic controller asks a pilot, during an emergency, for the number of souls on board, it communicates to the pilot that the controller and pilot are focusing extra hard together on solving the emergency successfully, and that one word tells the pilot that the controller is going to be marshalling resources to help in every way possible. "Souls" is a term full of life and caring. For rescuers, it communicates very quickly the total number of persons who must be found and saved.

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Perhaps it might have something to do that "SOS" (the Morse-code version of MayDay) is backronymed to "save our souls". – Jan Hudec Mar 30 '14 at 19:56
"A term full of life and caring" that ignores unborn children and pets. Awesome. – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 31 '14 at 8:25
@LightnessRacesinOrbit: it doesn't include priceless artworks either, but some people care about those. Search and rescue care selectively, and pets are lower priority than passengers and counted separately -- should it be the opposite? Should all be counted in one number? Unborn children are an interesting edge case since they don't require counting and rescuing separate from the mother (and so don't need to be included in the tally) unless there's a chance of birth occurring after the count is given but before the search is abandoned. Another great reason not to fly heavily pregnant ;-) – Steve Jessop Mar 31 '14 at 9:15
@SteveJessop: It's not about the value of the baby and the dog to some human on board. It's about the intrinsic value of the baby's and dog's own souls. The value of life goes far beyond human possession, y'know :/ – Lightness Races in Orbit Mar 31 '14 at 10:13
Well, if someone wants me to look for pets or unborn children, all they have to add is info about pets and pregnant women. All searchers will pay special attention. – gknauth Mar 31 '14 at 13:33

The earliest reference I can find to 'souls' as a count of persons is mid-eighteenth century, although it probably was in use earlier. It appears in maritime commerce, as the number of living humans aboard a ship, and in civics, as the population of a town or city.

I think that in the early 1700s the words 'people' and 'person' both had strong connotations compared to those words today. 'People' meant humans of a certain country or a specific culture, and 'persons' meant humans of note or important characters.

So I conclude that a need arose, driven by government and commerce, for a word to mean an unaffected and precise head count, that yet afforded those being counted a little more respect than the barrels, boxes, coins, and cows whose numbers were also tallied.

Now if I could find a reference to that usage of 'souls' from the thirteenth or fourteenth century, I would simply assume that it arose from the learned churchmen who were doing the counting, as literacy was not yet widespread.

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There is a reference to the 14th century use of the term here: english.stackexchange.com/a/97556 – fluffysheap Mar 30 '14 at 7:34
In relation to population of a town or city I believe it was also used by Russian gentry and aristocracy (in translation at least -- I don't know the term in Russian). "I have 100 souls" means there are 100 serfs bound to my estate. I always took it to imply to some extent 100 souls "in my care", which of course to me as a member of a culture without serfdom seems disingenuous. But in that sense it has the same resonance as the crew of a ship/plane talking about souls on board. So I speculate it may be a synecdoche emphasising the part of the person most worthy of care. – Steve Jessop Mar 30 '14 at 10:39
What about women and slaves? Were they counted as souls in maritime commerce at that time? – mins Apr 1 '15 at 5:12

Aircraft (and previously, ships or trains) are frequently used to transport casketed remains en route to funeral. "Souls" was devised to remove any ambiguity about which "passengers" were among the living.

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nope, those are not part of the passenger manifest. They're strictly counted as cargo (though very special cargo, and there are procedures in place to ensure respectful handling at all times, including special storage facilities at airports, hearses, etc.). – jwenting Apr 4 '14 at 8:38

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