Amazing Places

Why Do Some Cities Get Such Weird Airport Codes?

Some airport codes make sense: DEN is Denver, SEA is Seattle. But who decided IAD was Washington, D.C. or that EWR was Newark? Airport codes may seem puzzling, but there is some rhyme and reason to them. The National Weather Service created what would eventually become the first airport codes way back in the early 1900s. Today, there's a three-letter International Air Transport Association (IATA) designator to identify airports around the world. Here's a peek behind the curtain into how certain airports get their codes.

Honoring People and Referencing Places

Many codes are abbreviated forms of a destination's name (ATL for Atlanta or CLT for Charlotte). Others honor important leaders in history like John F. Kennedy (JFK in New York) or Charles de Gaulle (CDG in Paris). Kahului in Maui honors aviator Captain Bertram Hogg with its code, OGG.

Codes can also refer to former names or uses of an airport. Orlando's code MCO references its days as McCoy Air Force Base. Kansas City's MCI refers to its originally intended name as Mid-Continent International, and Chicago O'Hare uses ORD, referring to its former name as Orchard Field.

SGN in Ho Chi Minh City relates to the city's original name, Saigon. LED is now the airport of St. Petersburg, Russia, which was once known as Leningrad.

They can also refer to an airport's location. Cincinnati Airport is actually located in Covington, Kentucky, hence its CVG code. Others refer to airports serving multiple cities, like DFW for Dallas/Ft. Worth and MSP for Minneapolis/St. Paul, although this isn't uniformly the case. Greensboro/High Point, North Carolina only uses GSO and Phoenix/Scottsdale only uses PHX.

Ever heard of FFA? It's First Flight Airport in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina where the Wright Brothers took their first flight.

What's the Deal with Xs and Ys?

Weather stations originally used two-letter codes, but as aviation grew, three-letter codes became a necessity to identify more airports. Those that already had two-letter designators often added an X as their third letter. Examples include Los Angeles's LAX (once LA) and PDX for Portland, Oregon (once PD). These days there's a shortage of three-letter codes, so once an airport is closed for at least a year, that code can be reused.

In Canada, you might notice that most airport codes begin with Y. That's because, in early aviation days, any Canadian airport that had a weather station added the prefix "Y" to its two-letter code to indicate "yes," there was one available. The practice stuck. In the United States, on the other hand, you might notice that very few airport codes begin with W or K. That's because these are reserved for use by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

You'll also rarely see a domestic airport code beginning with N; these are reserved for use by the Navy. That explains why Nantucket's code is ACK, Nome, Alaska uses OME, and Norfolk, Virginia uses ORF.

Wacky Airport Codes

Airport codes don't always work out so well. Sioux City, Iowa has to deal with SUX as an airport code while Fukuoka, Japan must not be thrilled with having FUK on incoming baggage tags. Dickinson, North Dakota's code is DIK, and Fresno, California is known as FAT. Helsinki embraces its code: HEL. It famously had a team of "HEL's Angels" fanned out across the airport to assist travelers with flight questions or directions.

Airport codes also take on importance in pop culture. For example, people in hipster Portland, Oregon often refer to their city as PDX on social media. Winnipeggers in Canada do the same by making airport code YWG a popular hashtag.

The One Code That Could Save You Money

You don't have to know your desired airport's code to buy a ticket, though. There are three-letter codes you can use in general terms to search for multiple airports in one location. For example, typing NYC into most airfare search engines would check prices from all of New York's commercial airports, including Newark, New York LaGuardia, New York JFK, and even Islip and Newburgh/Stewart. The same goes for YTO, which covers both Toronto Pearson and Toronto Billy Bishop airports, and TYO, which includes both Tokyo Narita and Haneda Airports. Others include CHI for Chicago, LON for London, and WAS for Washington. You can often find lower flight prices by considering alternative airports when using these catch-all codes.

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Correction 6/23/2018: A previous version of this article stated that Canadian airport codes start with Y as a carryover from Canadian radio station naming rules. It's actually because early airports with a weather station used "Y" to indicate "yes, we have a weather station." It also stated that the airport of Sioux Falls, South Dakota goes by SUX — that honor belongs to Sioux City, Iowa. The article has been corrected.

Written by Ramsey Qubein June 20, 2018

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