Finding Your Tail Number (When You Can’t See It)

Every aircraft has a unique registration number, usually printed on or near the tail – think of it like a license plate for an airplane.

Photo of several regional jets with the tail numbers highlighted

I track tail numbers on my flight log in order to let me keep track of whether I’ve been on a particular airplane before, and to let me know which particular airplanes I’ve flown on most often.

If you can see the tail number of your plane, great! But if you can’t see it, you can usually find the tail number with a bit of detective work.

General Strategy

If you’re unable to see the tail number directly, your goal should be to find some other way to uniquely identify an airplane, and use that information to look up the tail number on Planespotters.net. Planespotters maintains a database of airline fleets, so once you know the operator of your flight, you can start trying to narrow down which of their aircraft you’re about to fly on.

Find Your Airline and Aircraft Type

Finding your airline isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Your ticket may say United, the airplane you’re about to board may be painted like a United aircraft, but it may not actually be operated by United.

Often, mainline airlines will contract out operation of some of their flights (particularly smaller regional flights) to other airlines that you may never have heard of – ExpressJet, Trans States Airlines, and hundreds of others. Fortunately, these are usually listed on flight status pages, so go to the website or app of the airline printed on your boarding pass and look up your flight.

As an example, this flight was sold by United, but was actually operated by Trans States Airlines.
As an example, this flight was sold by United, but was actually operated by Trans States Airlines. (“dba” means “doing business as.”)

The airline who is actually operating the plane is what will matter for the steps. So, for the remainder of this article, “airline” refers to the operating airline unless otherwise specified.

The flight status page will often also tell you the aircraft type. Make note of this, as it’s also helpful in finding out the tail number.

Looking
Looking at this example again, the aircraft type is “Embraer RJ145LR”

Look for a fleet number

Most airlines have their own way of tracking which aircraft is which, in the form of a fleet number. This is often printed on the aircraft as well, but it may be in an easier to see spot than the tail number.

If you can’t see it on the plane itself, the flight status page on your mainline airline’s app may show it.

Once you have a fleet number, go to Planespotters.net’s airline fleet database and browse to your operating airline.

Planespotters OperatorClick the number in the “Current/Active” column for the aircraft type you looked up previously, and you’ll end up with a listing of every aircraft of the right type in that operating airline’s fleet.

If you’re lucky, the fleet number you found will be listed in the fleet number column; from there, look over to the “Reg” column, which will provide you your tail number.

If your fleet number is not listed, look at the column of registration numbers – often (but not always) the fleet number will have some correlation with the tail number. For example, on Trans States Airline’s ERJ-145 fleet, most of the tail numbers are in the form NFFFHK, where FFF is the fleet number. From there, it’s pretty easy to determine that the example fleet number of 857 has the tail number N857HK.

Of course, it’s always a good idea to try to get confirmation that you’re correct by searching for that tail number in FlightAware and seeing if the itinerary matches what you expect.

Check FlightRadar24

Flightradar24 often has tail number data on flights that are within a few hours of departure, and for a few days after departure. Try searching for your airline and flight number, though note that you’ll have to use an airline code instead of an airline name to search (for example, you need to search “AA1342” instead of “American Airlines 1342”).

Flightradar24Their site seems to not work as well on iOS devices (which, at the airport, is what I’m generally using to looking up tail numbers), so I paid a few dollars for their app instead.

Look for a Door Plaque

Some aircraft (notably, Boeing 737s) will have a metal plaque mounted on the inside of their entry door frame, which gives some production information from the aircraft.

2015-07-14 08.19.32

For example, in the above photo from a Boeing 737, the Manufacturer’s Serial No. is listed as 33860. Planespotters.net tracks this number as well – in various places on the site, it’s listed as “Construction Number,” “c/n,” or “MSN.” Searching for this number in the Planespotters.net search tool yields a Southwest Airlines 737-700 with tail number N470WN.

Ask the Crew

It is, of course, possible to ask your flight attendant during boarding if they could get the tail number from a pilot.

Generally I’ll try not to let it get to this point, since the crew have plenty to do during preflight, but it is an option.

BTS On-Time Statistics

If all else fails and you can’t get the tail number while at the airport, it may still be possible to get it later.

Within the United States, the Bureau of Transportation Statistics tracks the on-time performance for many domestic flights. Included in this data is the tail number of the flight

There are some caveats:

  • BTS only tracks US domestic flights.
  • BTS only tracks airlines that carry at least 1% of all US passenger traffic, so many flights operated by smaller regional carriers aren’t tracked.
  • BTS only has data about 1-2 months after the flight occurs, so you will have to wait a few months to find your tail number.

On the BTS Airline On-Time Statistics Page, scroll down to the Detailed Statistics section, and select either Departures or Arrivals, depending on whether you want to search for flights by the departure airport or arrival airport. (I usually search by whichever airport is smaller, so the list of flights returned is easier to look through.)

As an example, on 14 July 2015, I flew from Dayton to Orlando on Southwest 4147. Dayton, the departure airport, has fewer flights than Orlando, so I elected to search by Departures. From there, BTS gives me a search page:

bts1

Be sure to select at least one statistic or the form won’t submit. Flight number, tail number, and destination airport are already included, so I just select scheduled departure time to make the form happy. The origin airport is Dayton, the airline is Southwest, and the Month, Day, and Year are Jul, 14, and 2015.

Submitting the form gives you a list of search results:

bts2

And, at the bottom of the list, you can see that flight 4147 was flown on N470WN.

Conclusion

I didn’t start actively tracking tail numbers until 2012, and even with that, I’ve had tremendous success finding the tail number for most of my flights by using these techniques. As of the time of this writing, I’ve had 428 flights, and I’m only missing the tail number for 20 of them. For every flight since July 2012, I’ve had a 100% success rate in finding the tail numbers.

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