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Each (large, commercial and most other) aircraft has a registration number, painted or stickered on its hull: the tail number.

I was under the false impression that tail numbers don't change, and that a number identifies an aircraft until it's decommissioned. That's not true, apparently! This article, for example, explains how new owners may want to change numbers when they buy aircraft.

My question: Under what other circumstances do tail numbers of commercial aircraft typically change? Other than changes-of-ownership?

Notes:

  • I'm not asking about considerations for changing tail numbers during ownership changes. That's covered.
  • Of course, someone can arbitrarily change a tail number on a whim, but that's probably very rare; I'm asking about somewhat-common situations in which tail numbers are changed.

Motivation: Want to be able to use tail numbers to distinguish different aircraft, but need more information to qualify that assumption. So, I realize different owners may invalidate the assumption; looking to qualify it further.

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Aside from ownership changes, tail number change is very rare: The cost to change the tail number with the same national registry, on the aircraft itself and in the maintenance logs plus the cost of the aircraft being out of service for some time will far outweigh any minor cosmetic benefits.

The only reason I can think of is changing the registration to a different country for tax or regulatory cost savings. Since the first 1-3 characters of the tail number are a national prefix, it must changed in that case. This also often coincides with a change in ownership, though possibly just to a shell corporation to make the registration in the new country allowable, which then leases it back to the original owner.

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I was under the false impression that tail numbers don't change

Tail numbers (AKA registrations) are changeable by definition since each country is allocated codes with different prefixes and formats. If an operator from country X buys an aircraft from an operator in country Y, then the tail number must will most of the time be changed to a valid tail number of country X. Depending on local laws, in some rare cases a tail number of another country will be used, for tax purposes (much more common with sea vessels). This is why some Aeroflot aircraft have VP-B* registrations that belong to Bermuda.

What does not change is the manufacturer serial number (which may be analogues to a road vehicle VIN).

I think the source of the confusion is that the Wikipedia article that you linked to uses "tail number" of civil and military aircraft interchangeably, and that is wrong. Military aircraft's tail numbers do not conform to their countries' ICAO-issued civil registration format, and they may or may not be changed whenever said air force want.

Already know that different carrier + same tail number may mean different aircraft

This assumption is wrong. Tail numbers are unique. However, they can be re-used over time.

Under what circumstances do tail numbers of commercial aircraft typically change? That is, other than arbitrary whims (which I assume are rare), when do airlines/aircraft owners go through the number changing procedure?

As mentioned above, the most likely case is when an aircraft is being bought from an operator from another country than the previous operator.

Sometimes the new operator will change the tail number even if the aircraft was bought from an operator in the same country in order to fit the registration scheme that said operator may use (for example, N737* for 737 aircraft, N747* for 747, etc).


Other than the mentioned cases above, it's impossible to answer this question in general terms. Every operator may or may not change tail numbers of aircraft it buys. An operator may even decide to change tail numbers of aircraft it already owns just because.

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  • $\begingroup$ This doesn't answer my question, though. Interesting to know about the mfg number. $\endgroup$ – einpoklum Dec 10 '19 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ @einpoklum-reinstateMonica I added a direct answer to your question in the end $\endgroup$ – DeepSpace Dec 10 '19 at 19:46
  • $\begingroup$ I already know that tail numbers often change when aircraft change owners. Are you saying that, other than in these circumstances, tail numbers almost never change? $\endgroup$ – einpoklum Dec 10 '19 at 19:47
  • $\begingroup$ @einpoklum-reinstateMonica It's impossible to answer in general terms. An operator may change or may not change the tail number of aircraft it buys. $\endgroup$ – DeepSpace Dec 10 '19 at 19:49
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    $\begingroup$ There is one more reason. When returning an aircraft that was stored to service, it's registration may have expired, so it needs to be re-registered and usually gets a new number (of course returning stored aircraft to service is usually done after purchase, so the other reasons apply anyway). $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Dec 10 '19 at 20:27
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The most common time for a tail number to change would be when an aircraft changes ownership. However, if the airplane is staying in the same country, it may not be worth the paperwork to change. Some examples include US Airways aircraft like N167US retaining their registration with American, and AirTran aircraft like N937AT retaining their registration with Delta.

Although it's possible for an airline to operate foreign-registered aircraft, a foreign sale is the point where it may make more sense to get a new registration.

The livery is the most important part for brand image of the airline. Few people pay attention to what the tail number is, and it's more of a regulatory/paperwork detail. Records such as for maintenance may refer to the tail number and it makes more sense to leave that consistent even if the ownership changes. Unlike private operations, commercial flights will typically be identified to ATC under a callsign rather than their tail number, so that is not as much of a factor.

A smaller operation that may want to keep some sort of registrations scheme might find it worth changing the registration on aircraft when they change hands.

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  • $\begingroup$ But again, my question is about other circumstances in which tail numbers are changed... $\endgroup$ – einpoklum Dec 10 '19 at 20:14
  • $\begingroup$ Note that the operator-specific suffixes are somewhat specific to the USA. In Europe most aircraft have a five letter, including country prefix, registration with no obvious pattern. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Dec 10 '19 at 20:29
  • $\begingroup$ In the US an owner can change it quite simply. The FAA charges \$10.00 to assign a new N-number to an aircraft. There's no additional charge if you can accept whatever number the FAA assigns. You can however reserve a special N-number for a fee of \$10.00. Even if you don't have an aircraft, you can reserve a special N-number, though it will cost you $10/year to hold it. It's all spelled out on the FAA web site under Special N-Numbers, Changing N-Numbers $\endgroup$ – Gerry Dec 10 '19 at 23:35
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The rules are different in different countries.

In some countries the aircraft gets its registration, and keeps it forever (the registration may be suspended if the aircraft transfers to a different country, but will regain its original registration on return).

In some countries you cannot choose the registration, the authorities do that. In some countries, the owner can choose a registration, and change it as often as they want.

In some countries you have to re-register the aircraft every few years (3 for FAA-land??), in others the registration is for life.

So, it varies.

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  • $\begingroup$ Does re-registration involve a tail number change? $\endgroup$ – einpoklum Dec 11 '19 at 9:51

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