Why Do Pilots Say "Souls on Board"? A Look at the Phrase's Origins

The term found its roots in nautical terminology in the 18th century.

Melissa Willets - Author

Apr. 23 2024, Published 11:05 a.m. ET

A pilot sits in the cockpit of an airplane with a headset on
Source: Getty Images

Is it just us or is the phrase "souls on board" a little unsettling?

But this is how pilots and air traffic controllers refer to passengers on an aircraft, even if the term feels outdated, or just plain ominous.

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So, why do pilots say "souls on board" instead of saying, for instance, "people on board"? Here's the reason this phrase is still used by many, and the origin of the use of the word "souls" in talking about travelers.

air traffic controller holds binoculars looking out at runway
Source: Getty Images
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So, why do pilots say "souls on board"? Why not "people on board"?

As if flying wasn't stress-inducing enough, if you've heard a pilot or air traffic controller say how many souls are on board your aircraft, the experience of getting from point A to point B becomes even more anxiety producing. Because, souls? Is this thing going down?

But the reality is that according to Simply Flying, the term found its roots in nautical terminology in the 18th century and has been around ever since. Indeed, the number of souls on a ship would refer not only to passengers who were alive, but also to those who had died in transit, which was a common occurrence. Yikes.

The number of souls on a ship — and now on an airplane — includes the crew as well.

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Meanwhile, the use of the term "souls on board" a vessel may even date back much, much further than the 18th century, with scholars tracing the phrase to several instances in the Bible.

passengers on an airplane
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Saying "souls on board" is not taught any longer.

Per Simply Flying, both the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Air Traffic Control (ATC) handbook dictate that communications should say the term "people on board" instead of referring to souls.

But it seems that traditions persist, and you'll still hear the term "souls on board."

Indeed, as retired controller Rod Peterson told Medium, “That term ‘souls on board’ doesn’t ring a bell insofar as the [Air Traffic Control Manual] is concerned. However, it was something I learned ‘by legend’ in my air traffic control development.”

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Although Medium reports that the term is no longer taught today to air traffic controllers, the outlet also claims that its survival in the industry may have something to do with how important an air traffic controller's job is. After all, along with the pilot and other crew, these people literally have passengers' lives in their hands.

In a 1963 film, A Traveler Meets Air Traffic Control, one FAA official says, "Every one of those planes is loaded with people. That’s the thought an air traffic controller never lets out of his mind. … These people are more than statistics to us. I don’t mean to get dramatic, but every passenger on a plane is a human life that is entrusted in a great measure to the skill and judgment of the pilot and to the air traffic controller.”

In the end, it's not known why the term is still around if no teaching material supports its continued use, but old habits die hard. And as long as we get to where we're going safely, who cares what pilots say?

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