How planes get their names

Story highlights

  • National Aviation Day is August 19
  • Hawaiian Airlines names A330s after star constellations
  • Virgin America launched the first plane named after a hashtag

(CNN)That plane you're sitting on isn't an anonymous hunk of metal. It has a name, thank you very much.

It's named after a saint, or a star, or perhaps its city of birth. It might be named after a hashtag or a funny pun.
    Not all airlines name their aircraft, but those that do take the business (mostly) very seriously.
    "In Hawaiian culture, the naming of a person, place or thing plays a significant role in defining its 'being' and giving it a spirit," explains Debbie Nakanelua-Richards, director of community relations at Hawaiian Airlines, which over the years has named its planes after constellations, native flowers and birds and, on one occasion, a Hawaiian sumo wrestler.

    Written in the stars

    Most recently, the airline's A330s were named after star constellations used by Polynesian sailors (its first widebody A330 is called Makali'I, the Hawaiian name for the Pleiades cluster of stars).
    "I was so taken by the idea of growth for our airline, and the idea that we were at the forefront of our next generation, I couldn't help but think about the universe," recalls Nakanelua-Richards, who had a hand in the A330 naming process.
    The protocol for naming planes varies. Sometimes it's done by an individual, other times by a group.
    "We had an employee with an extensive background in birdwatching that was very helpful when we were naming our first B717 aircraft," she says.

    Connecting flights

    El Al looks to the map when naming its planes.
    Daniel Saadon, vice president and general manager at El Al -- Israel's national carrier -- says names act as a vital link between the company and the country it represents.
    "El Al is very much connected to the land of Israel, so we found it nice to name our planes after the cities in Israel, just to show a connection to the people," he explains.
    Popular names for planes have included: Jerusalem, Sderot (a city close to the border of Gaza), and Rehovot (the birthplace of Chaim Weizmann, the first president of Israel).
    Whenever the airline chooses a new place to honor on a plane, there's an unveiling ceremony in the corresponding city.
    The naming procedure is done by committee at El Al, which will probably meet up again soon, as the airline recently purchased 15 new planes.
    The question is, are there enough Israeli cities to meet the needs?
    "We are a small country, and we don't have hundreds of cities, so maybe we'll go into villages next, or we'll name them after people that had a lot of influence on Israel life, who knows?"

    Playful puns

    Virgin America has a less lofty approach when naming its planes, though the monikers are no less an expression of the company's brand.
    Some playful Virgin plane names include: An Airplane Named Desire, My Other Ride is a Spaceship, Scarlett O'Air, and Spruce Moose -- to name but a few.
    Virgin also has a varied approach to how it solicits names.
    Sometimes it invites prominent figures to get in on the process, as it did in 2007 when Boing Boing co-editors and designer Jonathan Adler helped name 10 new planes added to the fleet (they came up with Unicorn Chaser).
    Other times, Virgin seeks the help of Facebook fans.
    Portlanders voted for Mount Hoodie -- a reference to Oregon's Mount Hood -- although I Liked This Plane Before It Went Mainstream was a close contender (a nod to Portland's hipster status).
    Back in 2011, Virgin America also unveiled the world's first plane named after a hashtag.
    #Nerdbird's moniker paid tribute to the tech-savvy customers the A320 served on routes to the United States' "Silicon Cities."
    Irish airline Ryanair also used social media in 2015, when it celebrated the launch of its Facebook account -- yes, it really didn't have one before last year -- by running a competition for 30 lucky Facebook fans to get a plane named after them and their likeness painted on the side.
    So how can you find out the name of the plane you're on?
    Simple. It's often right on the nose.
    And if you can't get enough of eccentric planes, take a look at this gallery of colorful airplane liveries from around the world.