Is 'Jim Wilson' Airline Code for a Dead Body on a Plane?

Even the dead have to get around. Do airlines use special language to refer to the transport of human remains? Leon Neal/Rob Melnychuk/Getty Images
Even the dead have to get around. Do airlines use special language to refer to the transport of human remains? Leon Neal/Rob Melnychuk/Getty Images

According to the Internet and urban legend, two things that go hand in hand with a grain of salt, American Airlines uses the code name "Jim Wilson" for human remains being shipped in its cargo hold. But is there any truth to this? 

After all, it's absolutely true that American, like many other airlines, does ship human remains — people die all the time far from their families and final resting places. But no one at American actually uses this code, says an American Airlines spokesperson, and it's not anything that passengers would ever hear.


Except that there's a page on the National Funeral Directors Association website that specifically instructs its members to use the "American Airlines Cargo Jim Wilson Service." And the American Airlines spokesperson mentioned in a phone call that the name appeared to come from the company that manufactured the air trays used to safely transport the remains. In any case, the NFDA page might be out of date, since it says an air tray costs $75, while the up-to-date American Airlines cargo page lists the cost as $100, and our attempts to contact the NFDA went unanswered.

This raises the question, though: do any other airlines use codes like this to protect the sensitivities of other passengers and offer some privacy for the deceased? If they do, they're keeping it a secret even from some of their employees. Calls placed to JetBlue, Alaska Air, and United revealed that they'd never heard of such a thing, but it was intriguing enough that the people who answered the phones were going to look into it. One bewildered JetBlue representative we reached said, "I've never been asked that before."

Like everything else related to air travel since September 11, 2001, transporting human remains became more difficult. In 2004, the Transportation Security Administration partnered with funeral homes to come up with some guidelines to help people transport remains with less hassle and better security.

This is especially tricky with cremated remains. Airlines may require that you carry them onto the plane rather than checking them into the cargo hold, which means they must go through the X-ray machine. If the container is opaque to the machine, it cannot go onto the plane. And TSA agents are not permitted to open the container, even if you ask them to. There are travel-friendly containers available made of plastic or wood that work with the X-ray machine, but you have to know that in advance.

Since Wilson is the tenth most common last name in the United States and James is number 17 on the first-names list, what would a living Jim Wilson think of his name being used this way? There's a Jim Wilson whose LinkedIn profile lists him as a creative director at American Airlines – though with zero connections and no other online presence, we could chalk that one up as perhaps an Internet joke. Maybe there's a reason similarly named colleagues at American choose to go by James rather than Jim.

So let's chat with a real Jim Wilson, this one a musician from Athens, Georgia, who says he's a bit weirded out by the whole thing. Wilson notes that his creep factor's low, but that "it's not personal," he says. "It's a very common name."

He did note that the name John Doe serves its purpose, and the supposed Jim Wilsons aboard any flight aren't anonymous. After weighing all the implications, the living Jim Wilson adds, "If my name is being used for the greater good to ship loved ones, I can only be honored."

For a little levity at the end of this otherwise dead-serious topic, let's look to the sky: