Most accidents are referred to by flight number, for instance MH17 or MH370 to name a few recent ones.

Flight numbers are usually but not always retired after a crash. So why isn't referred to the registration number instead?

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    $\begingroup$ Probably because everyone who has ever flown or picked someone up at the airport is familiar with flight numbers, but very few (outside the aviation community) actually realize that planes have a registration number. (Never mind that their car has a registration/plate number - most won't put 2 and 2 together.) A side note, registration numbers can change when the plane changes owners. $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 13:07
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    $\begingroup$ For one thing, the flight number is usually shorter and/or easier to remember than the aircraft registration: MH370 vs. 9M-MRO; AF447 vs. F-GZCP $\endgroup$
    – Pondlife
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 13:09
  • $\begingroup$ Like you say, the flight numbers are retired after a notable crash, so are unique when discussing notable crashes. $\endgroup$
    – user11101
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 20:33
  • $\begingroup$ I think one of the reasons is that in case of a accident where there is little hull damage, the registration number might be maintained, leading to a situation where a single registered plane might be part of multiple accidents, leading to confusion. Meanwhile, flight numbers easily get retired and it's far less likely for a flight number to have multiple crashes. the latter is not impossible though: I can find 3 occurences where a flight number has multiple accidents with serious bodycounts. $\endgroup$
    – Nzall
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 21:33
  • $\begingroup$ @user11101: registration numbers are (very obviously) unique too, so that's not a good argument $\endgroup$
    – summerrain
    Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 7:31

2 Answers 2


Most accidents are referred to by flight number

It depends who it is that is referring to the accident, and on who they are addressing.

News media and the general public

Newpapers and other media use flight numbers because that is the number known to friends and relatives of the individuals concerned and because most members of the public who have flown as passengers are very familiar with the concept of flight numbers but not really familiar with aircraft registration numbers.


Investigating authorities have their own numbering schemes for accidents they investigate.

Aircraft registration numbers change when an aircraft is sold to a purchaser based in another country.

The only number that stays with an aircraft for its entire life is the manufacturer's serial number.

All these numbers can appear in official accident investigations reports. The registration number is usually prominent.

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    $\begingroup$ I think the flight number is more a media thing, like the name of the unfortunate pilot printed everywhere. $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 14:13
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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunate or not, at the end of the day, the Captain is responsible for his ship. $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 21:55
  • $\begingroup$ @corsiKa: That's not how courts see the thing, responsibility can also be imputed to the manufacturer, the airline, or the ATC, or indeed to the hijacker if there is one. But my comment was more about media sullying pilot's good name before the safety agencies even know the causes. MH370 is a study case. The captain was using a flight simulator at home to land on difficult runways... ooh... very very very suspicious... $\endgroup$
    – mins
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 13:49

The flight number is more readily available than the aircraft's registration number. With a simple call to the departure/arrival airport's information office (or even from the airport's website) anyone can get the flight number. Sometimes the aircraft is not ready and another one is used for the scheduled flight so the registration number could be difficult to obtain.

Also, a flight number uniquely identifies a route, a departure airport and time, a destination and an airline.

  • $\begingroup$ But it's the plane that crashed, not the route. Hence the quesstion. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 4, 2015 at 23:16
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby, of course, but it's common to refers to the aircraft flying a certain route .(I mean, even without any accident occurring) using its flight number. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 7, 2015 at 8:23
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    $\begingroup$ @Richerby: To concerned relatives of passengers, the route crashed, not the plane. You are seeing things from the aviator's point of view, not the passengers'. When releasing information publicly, saying "a plane with registration F-GZCP crashed" doesn't convey any information that I can see, since this information is never given to the public in any other context (the plane can be changed at any time and is not relevant to their itineraries). Saying "Flight AF447 crashed" tells anyone with itinerary information exactly whether they need to be calling the airport or not. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 20:38
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidRicherby Out of interest, if it were a train or a coach that crashed, what would you expect to hear about? $\endgroup$ Commented Dec 10, 2018 at 8:44
  • $\begingroup$ @CptReynolds i would hear it as route number, not the vehicle registration. $\endgroup$
    – vasin1987
    Commented Dec 11, 2018 at 18:36

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