… and I’ll tell you who you are.” One thing’s for sure; the person who invented that saying wasn’t thinking about aircraft. But aircraft names do tell us something about the plane in question – at least, they do at Lufthansa. And aviation experts can glean a lot more information from the official registration. Here’s some background on aircraft names and registrations
The name on the fuselage is Frankfurt am Main, but she’s better known at Lufthansa as Mike Alpha. Some sticklers for the rules opt for the official registration code D-AIMA. So far, so good? We’re talking about Lufthansa’s first Airbus A380, which was delivered toward the close of 2009. Like most Lufthansa aircraft, she has a name as well as an official registration – and, to top that, a nickname as well.
Let’s take a look at the official registration first. That’s painted on both sides of the fuselage right next to the rear doors. Lufthansa’s aircraft registrations always consist of five letters. The first letter states the country in which the machine is registered. So the D stands for Deutschland (Germany). The second letter tells us the aircraft classification and weight category. The A indicates an engine-powered plane with an all-up takeoff weight of not less than 20 tons – that goes for all Lufthansa aircraft in regular commercial service.
The third letter is the code for manufacturer’s identity. “I” stands for Airbus and “B” for Boeing. The fourth letter states aircraft type; that’s “M” for the A380 and, for example; “Y” for the Boeing 747-8. The fifth letter is used to identify the individual plane.
So that’s the secret behind the identification code D-AIMA for that Lufthansa A380. But airline staff seldom use an aircraft’s full registration code. They cut it down to the last two letters and then, to avoid any misunderstandings, they translate those into the international phonetic alphabet: D-AIMA morphs into Mike Alpha.
But how did Mike Alpha acquire the name Frankfurt am Main? That’s the result of a tradition going back more than 50 years. In 1960, Lufthansa decided to start naming the aircraft in its fleet. They restricted this at first to their long-haul aircraft, which they named after continents and West German cities with their own airports.
They had to rethink this procedure as their fleet grew in size. Large aircraft like the Boeing 747 could also be named after German states, and towns with a 40,000+ population can now be used to name any type of machine – short-, medium- and long-haul. And the planes of the Lufthansa Regional fleet get the names of smaller towns with a population of less than 40,000.
So the rule of thumb goes like this: the bigger the plane, the bigger the place it’s named after. But there are exceptions, like when a plane leaves the fleet. Its name can then be transferred to another plane, but only when there’s a new arrival of the right size. The place holding the record for name transfer is the city of Stuttgart – the state capital of Baden-Württemberg. To date, it has given its name to six different aircraft. But East German cities like Dresden and Leipzig are starting to catch up. Their names only qualified for use after German reunification.
There are exceptions to every rule and this is the case with the Lufthansa Airbus A340-300 with the official registration D-AIFC. This came into service in 2002 with the name Gander/Halifax – to make it the first plane in the fleet to bear the name of a foreign town. The story behind that takes us back to 9/11, when U.S. airspace was completely closed down. Within the space of a few hours, 42 planes, including a number of Lufthansa aircraft, had to be diverted to land at this small Canadian town. Naming the machine Gander/Halifax was Lufthansa’s way of saying thank-you to the people of Gander for their help.
Lufthansa changed the rules again for the Airbus A380. These planes can be named either after cities or Lufthansa hubs in Germany and elsewhere in the world. It goes without saying that Lufthansa was honor-bound to choose the name Frankfurt am Main for D-AIMA, its first A380. That’s not only a big German city. It’s Lufthansa’s most important hub.