I chatted the other night with a friend who works for Southwest Airlines. I asked this person something that’s always intrigued me: Why is Southwest’s IATA code “WN”?
One would think it’d be “SW,” right?
The simple reply? An African airline held claim to “SW” before Southwest came along. So Southwest had to pick something. And one of the airline’s leaders at the time — Colleen Barrett — was purportedly a big Willie Nelson fan.
If you’re at all familiar with Dallas-headquartered Southwest, you know they’re eccentric. And you probably wouldn’t be shocked if Shotgun Willie were, in fact, the reason Southwest is “WN.”
So I looked it up on the Interwebs.
And that certainly is one explanation as to how Southwest got their “WN” designation. (And it got “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” stuck in my head for a day. Thanks, Southwest.)
But is that the explanation?
According to another Southwest employee “rwest”, the Willie Nelson tale makes for a fun urban legend but, alas, that’s not the answer. So why “WN”?
“Perhaps ‘Why Not’ is the best answer,” he writes.
Yet another explanation is “WN” stands for “We’re Nuts.”
Another theory floating around is that Southwest wanted to be snarky. The brainstrust decided that because Northwest Airlines was “NW” and they were, y’know, Southwest, they’d simply flip “NW” around and become “WN.” Yeah! That’ll show that hoity-toity Northwest Orient! 😉 .
Given Southwest’s (well-earned) whimsical and quirky reputation, all of these explanations somehow make sense to me.
IATA Know This
Most of us are familiar with relatively self-explanatory IATA identifiers: “DL” (Delta Air Lines), “UA” (United Airlines), “AA” (American Airlines). But wirlines with somewhat head-scratching IATA designations aren’t entirely unheard of. Take, for example, “OO” (SkyWest) or
“J6” “B6” (JetBlue).
But one may think that Southwest would somehow have the “SW.” So what’s up with that?
But it appears “WN” was randomly available that’s why Southwest had to choose. Why?
TheAvGeeks.com gives a little backstory (and also includes the Willie Nelson and “We’re Nuts” anecdotes) and explains:
The ‘SW’ identifier belonged to Air Namibia which at one time was named South West Air Transport and used the ‘SW’ identifier since 1959. In 1978, they rebranded as Namib Air but kept the ‘SW’ identifier. Herb Kelleher contacted the airline in the 1980s to see if some sort of exchange could be arranged so Southwest could get the ‘SW’ identifier, but Namib Air asked for $10 million! Other versions of the story claim that the response to Kelleher was, “Not at any price.“
When Namibia became independent from South Africa in 1990, Namib Air rebranded again as Air Namibia. Southwest officials once again met with Air Namibia with offers of assistance and aircraft parts as Air Namibia also had the Boeing 737-200 in its fleet. Once again, an astronomical financial demand was put on the table and Southwest decided to stick with the ‘WN’ designator.
I guess we may never know if there’s a meaningful reason behind Southwest getting designated “WN” — or if it was simply a random decision.
Which of the explanations is your favorite? Please tell us in the below Comments section!
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