Are Travel Codes About To Get More Complex?

In the good old days of travel, when flights departed on time and there were no security queues, flying seemed a much simpler experience, and almost exciting when you travelled to a new destination to experience a different culture and grab a suntan!

It may have been the paper ticket that helped build the excitement, or perhaps the need to check-in at a desk, rather than online twenty-four hours in advance, or it may even have been the thought of spending some time in the duty-free shops - it all seemed so easy.

Today everything seems to be more complicated, the travel process more onerous, and the time spent waiting longer - and all this seems to have crept up on us without us realising. There is no greater example of this than the good old Passenger Name Record (PNR).

The Five Character PNR

When I started in the industry, and that was some time ago, the PNR was everything, a five-character random alpha/numeric code that was your passport to travel. The PNR would normally sit proudly on your ticket receipt, and be prominent on your ticket so that any airline agent could quickly find your booking and keep your travel plans on track. I’m sure many people waiting for their next trip memorised that PNR and could recite it back by the time they travelled; five characters, simple to memorise and impressive to say when someone asked you for your booking reference! Admit it, we’ve all done it…and then five became six, and in some cases seven.

As air travel became so much easier - new markets opened and low-cost airlines entered the market - five digits were no longer enough to accommodate the growth, so the industry moved to six digits. And anyone who has tried remembering six random characters (rather than five) knows it can be a challenge, either that or it’s an age thing! If you can remember seven digits then you’re doing better than most people, and I guess it’s just another sign of globalisation or how large our industry has become, but it got me thinking…

The Future Of Flight Numbers

Flight numbers are easy enough to remember, for those interested in that sort of thing, and airlines help by having some iconic numbers for their premium routes:

  • QF 1 & 2 are the SYD – LHR route,
  • BA001 was reserved for Concorde services,
  • AA1 is New York to Los Angeles.

But even here we’ve increasingly moved to four-digit flight numbers that appear to be - in some cases - randomly selected by a computer, rather than follow any sort of logic. Overlay those flight numbers with all the codeshare numbers that many airlines have, and it becomes hard to remember if I’m on the UA1110 OGG-LAX, or is that the LH7939, or indeed the AC5470… either way it’s arriving on-time.

It must only be a matter of time before we run out of four-digit flight numbers and move to five-digits or maybe even six. Of course, planning for the future is always beneficial, but can we manage such changes, can the systems cope, were they designed to accommodate that type of growth, or is an industry task force required? Scary eh!

The Challenge Of Inter-Modal Connectivity

Thinking even further out, the whole of Europe is currently encouraging inter-modal connectivity, bus to train to plane, which will help with our carbon targets and everything sustainable. Great stuff, much needed, integrated travel etc. but what about airport three letter codes and seamless connectivity, which is what the European Commission is hoping for from all these great plans? So, for my humble integrated rail-to-air journey can someone tell me what the three letter code is for Lewes and has the connectivity been created in the Global Distribution Systems (GDSs) and have OAG received the required coding and Minimum Connection Times (MCTs)? Not yet!

As the world seems to be shrinking every day, connectivity growing, new airlines emerging and more flights in our skies, are we about to run out of what seemed a never-ending range of flight numbers, three letter codes, and will PNRs become seven or eight digits? As an industry we may be victims of our own success, some may call it growing pains or perhaps it’s just the next step forward; but are we actually ready? Only time will tell! 

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