G-VHOW do we name our aircraft?
Our next two Airbus A350 aircraft will be named in honour of two very inspirational women - Eve Branson, mother of founder Richard, and Emmeline Pankhurst, founder of the Suffragette movement. But why do we name aircraft, how do we choose the names and what are the rules?
Who doesn’t like to peek at the aircraft and spot its name as they’re about to board a flight? Many of our customers love ticking off all the different planes they’ve flown on, and enthusiasts enjoy discussing our registrations and quirky monikers. Ours have become such a big part of our brand that whenever we receive a new aircraft into our fleet, its special identity gets a lot of attention. This Saturday, our shiny new Airbus A350 is flying in from the Airbus factory in Toulouse. Its registration is G-VLUX, and in true Virgin Atlantic tradition, it also has a unique name; Red Velvet. We’ll get to what that means in a minute. But why do we give our aircraft names in the first place? And where did this odd tradition come from, who chooses the names, and how do they relate to the registration?
What’s in a name?
Before we get to the name, let’s talk about aircraft registrations. These are unique to each aircraft, with British registrations starting with a G- followed by four letters. All Virgin Atlantic aircraft have V as the first of those four letters, so G-VXXX. Our very first aircraft which took to the skies in June 1984 was a Boeing 747 with the registration G-VIRG. At the time, the giant ‘Virgin’ written on the tailfin was the biggest iteration of the famous logo, but Richard also insisted on another touch to the livery. As a newcomer to the world of aviation, he disliked the way everyone around him was calling G-VIRG ‘Romeo Golf’; the standard way our industry refers to aircraft (by the last two letters of its registration). He wanted to bring a bit of personality to the fleet and asked for our first aircraft to be named Maiden Voyager. Much better. This small touch has endured throughout our history, from long before red engines and our famous flying lady icon.
Naming aircraft isn’t unique to us. Several other airlines do it, but they tend to name theirs after famous people, or landmarks and cities of their home country. We’ve always tried to do it with a bit more panache and fun. After all, our planes will be flying around the world for many years to come, will be seen by millions and appear in countless photos.
Liz, studying registrations!
To find out more about the process of choosing our aircraft names, we spoke to Liz East from our design team. “Once we have a confirmed order of new aircraft, the internal brand team are given the task of looking at both potential names and registrations. It’s a bit of a complex process and not as easy as just thinking of a list of fun names (though that helps!). As I’m sure you’ve noticed, we always try to have a link between the plane registration and the name. It’s no good coming up with a fabulous name if there’s not an available registration that will work with it.
With all our registrations starting with G-V that leaves three letters to play with. Sometimes we can spell a word beginning with V – for example, G-VAST, Ladybird. But the majority of the time we just have three letters to make a connection to a name. Plus, the last two letters will be the aircraft’s unique call sign, so cannot be the same as the last two letters of any other registration in the Virgin Atlantic fleet. See, I told you it was complex!”
Where did this all begin?
Quite a bit of airline lingo was inherited from the world of shipping. Captains, port, starboard and galleys, to name a few. Even the airbridges you board from are sometimes known as jetties. And of course, all ships have names, and more often than not they are female. Nobody knows when or why people started naming them. It was probably to do with the amount of time sailors spent onboard and the emotional attachments they developed to their temporary homes.
The naming of planes made the jump from the marine world early on. Think Wright Flyer, Memphis Belle or Spirit of St Louis. For airlines, the practice of naming aircraft can also be traced back to the days of flying boats. During this period Pan Am started calling all their aircraft ‘Clippers’; a tradition that carried on right up until they ceased operations. Yet the names on aircraft have no operational purpose. On the ground, they’re still known by the last two letters of their registration, and once on the move, they have their own call sign that’s used to identify and communicate with air traffic control – usually some variation on the flight number.
So why continue to name our planes? We do get incredibly attached to our aircraft, in the same way, some get attached to a much-loved car or bike. Each has its own history, characteristics and memories, and customers often tell us the name of the plane that took them on their honeymoon or dream holiday. They’re the poster children of our airline, featuring in millions of holiday snaps and Instagram posts. It’s all a bit of much-needed fun. Part of that is trying to work out the link between the registration and name. Sometimes it’s easy; G-VSPY, Miss Moneypenny. Sometimes it’s not so obvious; G-VMAP, West End Girl, named after the Pet Shop Boys song and a rather tenuous link to the compass of a map. And then there are the ones that make no sense at all G-VXLG, Ruby Tuesday.
Our names take inspiration from music, film, literature, food, Cockney rhyming slang and more – especially if there’s a British link. Sometimes we look back at previous names of retired aircraft that are just too good not to use again. Usually, a long list is created, then we check if there are appropriate registrations to match, before narrowing it down to the ones that stand out most. It can be tough when you become attached to some names, but there’s always next time!
A few more facts about our aircraft names:
- Why women? This also harks back to shipping. Most boats have female names and are referred to in the feminine gender (she sets sail). It may have originated from European languages where objects are often given a gender. But again, nobody really knows, so we’re chalking it up to tradition.
- While we don’t have lavish Champagne bottle smashing naming ceremonies like the shipping industry, two of our aircraft have been named by royalty. In 1993 Princess Diana joined Richard at our Heathrow hangar to unveil the Airbus A340-300 Lady in Red. And in 2004, on a visit to the Airbus factory in Toulouse, the Queen named G-VEIL Queen of the Skies.
- When G-VWOW was named Cosmic Girl back in 2001, we couldn’t have predicted how the name would come into its own 14 years later. After retiring from passenger service, Cosmic Girl went on to become an airborne launch platform for Virgin Orbit’s satellites.
- The only aircraft that didn’t follow the pattern of G-Vxx was G-TKYO, Maiden Japan, one of our earliest 747s
- G-VATL was named following an internal staff competition. The winning name, Miss Kitty.
- In 2006 we ran an eBay auction to name one of our Airbus A340-600 aircraft for a year. The winning bid was for £10,000, and Mr Heaney named the aircraft Emmeline Heaney after his newborn daughter. It proved a good investment because the name still adorns the aircraft 13 years later. We’d love to hear from Emmeline if anyone knows her. G-VYOU is due for retirement later this year.
- There have been a few temporary aircraft renames for PR purposes over the years. Claudia Shiffer renamed G-VSHY ‘Cloudia Nine’. We had ‘Spice One’ named by the Spice Girls and ‘Austin Powered’ a 747 named after the movie character Austin Powers.
- All aircraft have a registration – planes, helicopters and hot air balloons – and once a registration has been used, it can never be used again, even if the aircraft is decommissioned.
- The only aircraft given a male name was Spirit of Sir Freddie, to recognise the help and advice that Sir Freddie Laker gave to Richard during the BA dirty tricks scandal.
- We have two names in memory of colleagues who are no longer with us – Forever Young and Olivia-Rae
- Four rock and roll acts share the honour of having two aircraft named after them. The Beatles with Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields; Abba with Dancing Queen and (shortly) Mamma Mia; The Rolling Stones with Ruby Tuesday and Honkytonk Woman and David Bowie with Lady Stardust and Dream Jeannie.
- Ideally, no two aircraft in the fleet should share the same last letters of their registration as this leads to confusion with call signs. We do have G-VNAP and G-VMAP, so both can be called “Alpha Papa”. However one is a Boeing 787 and the other an A340 which is due to retire soon, solving the problem.
- Everyone at the airline has a favourite aircraft name. Our favourite? Ruby Tuesday. It has it all: a rock and roll song, a splash of red and, of course, the name of our blog. The other Ruby in the fleet is G-VYUM, Ruby Murray (Ruby was a very successful singer from Belfast in the 1950s whose name has become known as rhyming slang for curry).
So back to our brand new Airbus G-VLUX Red Velvet. Surely that’s not named after the Korean girl band? Of course not. For LUX read luxury and then think of something red and luxurious. Possibly chosen at about three in the afternoon, it’s named after the delicious treat that is red velvet cake. It remains to be seen if Eric Lanlard will create a special version to fly onboard. We can’t wait to hear what our design team come up with next.
Tick one of our aircraft off your list by visiting our website to book a flight. Our first two gorgeous new Airbus A350s, Red Velvet and Mamma Mia, are now available for booking on flights to New York.
|G-VDIA||Boeing||B787-9||Lucy in the Sky|
|G-VMAP||Boeing||B787-9||West End Girl|
|G-VFAN||Boeing||B787-9||Pin Up Girl|
|G-VJAM||Airbus||A350-1041||Queen of Hearts|
|G-VBUS||Airbus||A340-300||Lady in Red|
|G-VNAP||Airbus||A340-642||Sleeping Beauty Rejuvenated|
|G-VEIL||Airbus||A340-600||Queen of the Skies|
|G-VMIA||Boeing||747-100||Spirit of Sir Freddie|
|G-VIBE||Boeing||747-200||Spirit of New York|
|G-VPUF||Boeing||747-200||High as a Kite|
|G-VRGN||Boeing||747-200||Maiden of Honour|