On Sunday, a Thai International Airways A330 carrying 280 passengers skidded off the runway while landing in Bangkok. There were 14 injuries but, thankfully, no fatalities.
A regrettable accident, to be sure. But the world might barely have noticed if ambulances and fire trucks had been the only vehicles to respond to the emergency. Instead, within hours, Thai also dispatched a bucket truck. In the dead of night, airline workers painted over the logo on the tail and the titles on the fuselage — in full view of photographers.
There’s one facet of airline branding that’s subtle, yet intensely symbolic. And best of all, it doesn’t cost a thing. It’s the flight number.
In the age of rail, railroads often reserved lower numbers for their most prestigious trains. By the jet age, Pan Am used “flight 1″ for its fabled round-the-world service (flight 2 flew the same route, but in the opposite direction.) The flight an airline designates as “flight 1″ has powerful meaning. It may reflect the airline’s history (as in the cases of Southwest, JetBlue, and American.) Or it might reflect present priorities (as for Air Canada.) Sometimes flight 1 can give you a deep insight into an airline’s soul. And sometimes not.