When ATC points out traffic that is a regional airline (e.g. Compass, Envoy, SkyWest, etc.), do they use the phonetic callsign of the airline, or do they use the callsign of the airline that they are operating as (how the plane is painted)?

The plane that a regional airline flies might be painted differently, depending on which airline they are flying for.

My thinking:

1) Pros of using the "aircraft paint": aircraft who are flying in VMC can spot each other more easily.

2) Pros of using the phonetic callsign: aircraft are on the same frequency in the same phase of flight, so they are more situationally aware if you use their phonetic callsign because they have probably already heard it in another transmission.


The call-sign is not used – it's as useful as saying the tail number if it's a GA plane ;)

The information given to the pilot is in FAA JO 7110.65 – section 2-1-21. TRAFFIC ADVISORIES.

  1. Azimuth (o'clock position), or cardinal position (e.g., northeast) if moving rapidly
  2. Distance
  3. Direction and/or relative motion (e.g., southwest bound, converging)
  4. If known, type and altitude.


ATC: [You], traffic, 12 o'clock, 10 miles, opposite direction, Boeing 737, one thousand above.

A comment by @user71659 remarked that Cockpit Display of Traffic Information (CDTI) can be used to follow traffic, and hence a call-sign/tail number would be given. This notice was cancelled in May of 2016 and was only to authorized users.

  • $\begingroup$ I've heard ATC call "company" traffic. Not quite a callsign, but it's close. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Feb 1 '19 at 19:46
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    $\begingroup$ True, it's used in ground operations, e.g., follow company. $\endgroup$ – ymb1 Feb 1 '19 at 19:58
  • $\begingroup$ Callsigns and tail numbers are actually useful since they're displayed on ADS-B In and TIS screens, whereas aircraft types aren't and are potentially ambiguous. $\endgroup$ – user71659 Mar 19 '19 at 23:15
  • $\begingroup$ @user71659: Could be useful for situational awareness, but since you can't read both up-close, there are of no use to "traffic advisories". See: Can TCAS be used to confirm “traffic in sight”? $\endgroup$ – ymb1 Mar 20 '19 at 3:54
  • $\begingroup$ @ymb1 ATC can say things like "Follow Airline 123". In fact, this will form a clearance in future ADS-B airspace, called In Trail Procedure. There's a totally different issue with TCAS and traffic. TCAS doesn't show the speed vector, which is known to easily cause misinterpretation of the situation. ADS-B In and TIS have the speed vector. $\endgroup$ – user71659 Mar 20 '19 at 4:20

In addition to the answers already here, aircraft "paint" scheme is often called between multiple jets in order to differentiate if there are a few of them in close proximity (on the ground). They don't have to be regional, either. "Delta 1921, follow the United-colored Boeing 757 ahead and to your right." Delta 1921 would then know they are not to follow the Fedex-colored 757 but the United colored one.

In the air, paint scheme is often used when pointing out traffic. "Traffic 9 o'clock and 5 miles, south bound a Delta-colored Boeing 717 descending out of 4 thousand, report that traffic in sight."

Both of these situations help differentiate between other traffic the pilots might see.


They would use the aircraft's actual call sign, ie. Endeavor or Brickyard. More often, however, ATC will just call the type of aircraft (737, A330) and its bearing and distance rather than say the airline it flies for. This is because often they are looking for traffic several miles away, and unless it's an all-white British Airways A380, you probably won't be able to tell the color anyway.

  • $\begingroup$ I must say this is from personal experience...I haven't actually looked in the AIM. $\endgroup$ – PilotDan Feb 1 '19 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ They never use the call sign, just aircraft type or generic description e.g. regional jet. You often know the callsign since when they call out traffic to you they give a corresponding call to the other aircraft. $\endgroup$ – JScarry Feb 2 '19 at 15:23

In the air, they don't bother; if you're close enough to read the paint, you're probably dead. They do give the type (if known) so you have an idea of what size plane you're looking for, though.

On the ground, they definitely call the paint--when they know it. This can cause confusion when a plane's paint doesn't match its callsign. For carriers known to use multiple paint schemes, they just call the type unless they can see the paint themselves from the tower.

  • $\begingroup$ Another distinction is the purpose of the message: traffic advisories are given when in the air, on ground it's ground movement instructions (covered in chapter 3-7 in the .65). $\endgroup$ – ymb1 Feb 1 '19 at 20:23

Depends on what you mean by “point out.” A point-out, in an air traffic sense, is a technical term, meaning coordination between two controllers where one controllers traffic will entered another’s airspace but control will not be transferred. In that case, call signs, positions and altitudes are used.

Calling airborne traffic to other pilots: direction, distance, direction of flight altitude and type of aircraft

On ground: all the above. Paint job of the airline, type, location... anything goes. I’ve used call signs as well, as in “you’re number 20 for departure, following an opposite direction xxx, call sign is yyy.


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