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The call sign of U.S. Airways is "Cactus", and that of British Airways is "Speedbird"; while for Malaysia Airlines is "Malaysia", Qantas is just simple "Qantas".

Why is it that the call signs of some airlines are so different from their names?

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    $\begingroup$ How do I make this question less broad? Help! $\endgroup$ – anshabhi Jun 16 '15 at 1:18
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    $\begingroup$ Looks alright to me. $\endgroup$ – kevin Jun 16 '15 at 2:22
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    $\begingroup$ Related question $\endgroup$ – DeltaLima Jun 16 '15 at 6:13
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    $\begingroup$ British Airways uses "SHUTTLE" instead of "SPEEDBIRD" on its domestic flights. Back in the old days when BA had fast planes, those planes would use the call sign "SPEEDBIRD CONCORDE". For a while BA toyed with using "GHERKIN" on their LCY-JFK flights which were under a different company as part of a complex financing arrangement, but in the end they stuck with "SPEEDBIRD". So there is some scope for the company to have a bit of fun! $\endgroup$ – Calchas Jun 16 '15 at 23:38
  • $\begingroup$ I am in a fix now, which answer should I mark as accepted? The most upvoted one, or some other..?? $\endgroup$ – anshabhi Jun 17 '15 at 14:14
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I found this on Wikipedia:

Some call signs are less obviously associated with a particular airline than others. This might be for historic reasons (South African Airways uses the callsign "Springbok", hearkening back to the airline's old livery which featured a springbok), or possibly to avoid confusion with a call sign used by an established airline. Companies' assigned names may change as a result of mergers, acquisitions, or change in company name or status; British Airways uses BOAC's old callsign ("Speedbird"), as British Airways was formed by a merger of BOAC and British European Airways. Country names can also change over time and new call signs may be agreed in substitution for traditional ones.

Before America West bought US Airways, their callsigns were Cactus (associated with the deserts of the American West) and USAir. After the merger, the combined airline kept the better-known (airline) name, and the other airline's callsign. Now, after the acquisition/merger of American Airlines, they're using that airline's name and callsign. Leading to more than a few radio calls recently (late spring / early summer 2015) along the lines of

"Center, Cactuuu...merican 123, FL 350"

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    $\begingroup$ Posting it as an answer, since it was too long for a comment. $\endgroup$ – anshabhi Jun 16 '15 at 1:21
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    $\begingroup$ That last bit is funny, thanks. +1 $\endgroup$ – Mehrdad Jun 16 '15 at 5:39
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    $\begingroup$ This reminds me of this video where a Philadelphia controller was taking suggestions to improve the callsign of Air Wisconsin. $\endgroup$ – reirab Jun 17 '15 at 1:07
  • $\begingroup$ I will miss hearing Cactus $\endgroup$ – rbp Jul 7 '15 at 22:16
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More reasons call signs might not be the name of the airline would include:

  • You need to have a call sign that contains few syllables rather than many, and that comes across relatively distinctly when communications are bad. The radio traffic can be fast, furious, and filled with static.
  • You need to have a call sign that doesn't expose you to ridicule. For example, when UPS first started flying with their own aircraft (as opposed to using contract aircraft and crews, which they first did), they used the call sign "brown tail." That didn't last long.
  • You need to have a call sign that does not give you political problems. For example, I worked for an airline that was known to be owned by Jewish interests and whose major route was New York to Tel Aviv. We also did a lot of charters. There was no way we could get overfly permits from either Iran or Saudi Arabia using our usual call sign, so we had an alternate, little used call sign for those flights.
  • You may be operating a contract flight. I flew many such flights, and the call signs I can offhand remember using included: Speedbird, Air India, Garuda, United, Japan Air, and Delta. Also on military charters we often used a military call sign, but I can't remember what it was. It was set up especially for the military airlift for Operation Desert Shield, the buildup for the first Gulf war.
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  • $\begingroup$ Did the charters fly with "MAC" before the Military Airlift Command became Air Mobility Command (a no-longer pronounceable acronym), which then got "Reach" (as in, Global Reach, Global Power -- an Air Force slogan of the month for a while) as their callsign? $\endgroup$ – Ralph J Jun 16 '15 at 3:01
  • $\begingroup$ @RalphJ We normally flew military charters under our company call sign, but during Operation Desert Shield they had us use the military call sign (which I can't remember, but "Reach" sounds familiar). As I recall, the problem was that during the political coalition building, some countries not part of the coalition did not want aircraft supporting the effort in their airspace. Thus the call sign for the effort facilitated routing which made everybody happy. Switzerland never did let us overfly. By the way, before MAC, they used MATS, Military Air Transport Service. $\endgroup$ – Terry Jun 16 '15 at 6:42
  • $\begingroup$ Reach is used by Reach air ambulance in the SF Bay Area $\endgroup$ – rbp Jul 7 '15 at 22:15
  • $\begingroup$ Tower Air used TeeAir. Can you imagine the confusion if they had used Tower? $\endgroup$ – Anilv Aug 23 '18 at 6:43
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The callsign is the combination of the ICAO Radio Telephony (R/T) designator and a flight specific identifier consisting of numbers and letters. In addition to the R/T designator there is also a three letter designator used on flight plans and air traffic control display systems.

The R/T designator (callsign) must not cause confusion with other operators flying in the same area, preferably at most three syllables long and it must be pronounceable in at least one of the following languages; English, French, Spanish or Russian.

Since there are many operators that have "airline" or "airways" in their name, that word is usually avoided in the R/T designator as it easily causes confusion. Usually an alternative is found that is in some way related to the airline.

For pilots it is not too difficult, they are typically paying attention specifically to their own R/T callsign. For controllers it is more difficult since they have to associate the three letter code on their screen with R/T designators that are not related in an obvious way.

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