Airport Codes – What Your City's Three Letter Airport Code Means

What’s the Story Behind Those Airport Codes?

Some airport codes make sense. And some seem completely insane.

Don’t Miss the Best Airport Code of All at End

I am talking about the three-letter code that identifies every airport around the world; the code you see on everything from your baggage tag to your boarding pass (you can own this list for a mere $1,590).

A quick query on our historical OAG (Official Airline Guide) database shows over 3,600 distinct airport codes with scheduled air service worldwide.

I live in Dallas, and my airport code is one of the easy ones: DFW – it stands for Dallas-Ft. Worth, the two cities that “own” the airport (although the airport is actually located between these two cities, and even has its own zip code).

Boston and Cincinnati

It’s a similar story for Boston – which has the airport code of BOS. Totally understandable.

But take a look at Cincinnati: CVG. Why not CIN? Well, for one thing, CIN is the designation for the municipal airport in Carroll, Iowa. But back to Cincinnati – and, as Dave English points out in his fascinating history of airport codes (and he’s the pilot behind the SkyGod blog), this Ohio airport isn’t actually in Ohio – it’s in Kentucky – in the town of Covington, to be precise, hence the designation CVG.

The Orlando Mystery – Solved

Then there’s Orlando – with the code of MCO. That’s because the code was designated back when the airport was still called by its original name, McCoy Air Force Base, and it matched the first few letters of “McCoy”.

By the way, even Google’s new “Instant” can’t seem to figure out MCO; it looks like they rank Moody’s Corporation over the airport – I guess credit ratings are more important than airports (well, except where collateralized debt obligations (CDO) are concerned – and CDO coincidentally happens to be the moniker for Cradock Airport in South Africa, but I digress)

Los Angeles, Phoenix – And Those X’s

Okay, how to explain LAX (Los Angeles) or PHX (Phoenix)?

Easy. In the very early days of flight, some airports were designated by the two-letter codes used that the National Weather Service used for cities.

“Why would we ever need more than two?” asked our short-sighted 2-letter airport code forefathers. Then, when it became apparent we did need another letter, I guess they just did what any self respecting pirate would do — “X” marks the spot after all, so they simply added that character.

Why Oh “Y” Canada

You gotta love the Canadians, they hijacked an entire letter of the alphabet when it comes to airport codes – yes the letter “Y” (my fav YYZ – Toronto).

The reason, however, is not so clear; one guess is that because the first airport code letter “Z” was hijacked for “special uses” by the FCC (I guess the Swiss got around that with Zurich-ZRH) along with letters “W” and “K” for radio stations east and west of the Mississippi and “Q” for international communications.

I suppose the Canadians felt if the FCC could co-opt a letter, then “Y” couldn’t they?

BTW, Canadians don’t have all the “Y” codes; I mean Yakima – YKM – is still in the U.S. :) and by the way, BTW is Batulicin Airport in Borneo (I wish I could keep from digressing).

Barnacle Scrapers Get “N”

Remember the movie “Top Gun” and your first surround-sound speakers kicking out the opening sequence (ok, I am electronics and airfare geek)?

A navy recruiting friend of mine recounted how he signed up “thousands” because of this movie – kids with dreams of flying F-14’s (though many ended up scraping barnacles off the bottom of carriers).

Turns out those dreams of flying have a steep history in the letter “N” since the Navy scooped up the last of those codes, years ago.

Which still doesn’t explain why Nashville is BNA instead of NAS (Nassau) — unless you know that Col. Harry Berry helped build the Nashville airport (apparently the “B” in BNA comes from Berry). Not to be outdone, another Tennessee flughafen in Knoxville - TYS – seems to bear no relationship to the word “Knoxville”, but you have to understand that it’s short for Tyson, and it was the Tyson family who donated the land for the airport in honor of a son – a young aviator – who was killed in action during World War I.

Who Designates the Airport Codes

These codes are currently shepherded (bit like herding cats, I suspect) by IATA or the International Air Transport Association which represents “93% of scheduled international air traffic.”

By the way, it’s easy to look up airport codes on the internet, either by city or airport name, or you can look up the codes to find the airport city – but let me warn you now: don’t bet against me in a game of name-the-airport-code! (“I’ll take “Airport Codes” for $1000, Alex”).

Funny Airport Codes

You might be surprised how amusing some of these codes can be. Let me give you some examples:

  • Barra, Scotland – BRR. Well, it can get cold there.
  • Fresno CA – FAT. In air travel lingo, the tactful way to say this is an “airport of size”
  • Grand Rapids MI – GRR. Why am I suddenly worried about anger management issues here?
  • Sandusky, Ohio – SKY. Now this one is just about perfect, don’t you think?
  • Doha, Qatar – DOH. Homer Simpson would be right at home.
  • Addis Ababa, Eithiopia – ADD. Oooh! look a shiny new plane (via @sethquillin).
  • Nantucket, Ma – ACK. Nerd speak for “affirmative”. Or what you say when told you’re plane is delayed.

The Best Airport Code of All

There are so many odd ones, but I’d have to say this is my favorite for a good laugh:

Sioux City, Iowa – SUX. Fortunately, the good folks in Sioux City have a terrific sense of humor. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at all the SUX” souvenirs they have for sale. Find them on www.flysux.com.

Author:

Published: September 9, 2010