Those Crazy Three Letter Airport Codes

Airport Gate Area

What are Airport Codes

Airport codes are the three-letter location identifiers for airports around the world, assigned by the Montreal-based International Air Transport Association (IATA). Most codes are common sensical; New York’s Kennedy International is JFK, Denver is DEN, Boston is BOS and Dallas-Ft. Worth is DFW. Look up more airport codes here.

Those are the easy ones. Some airport codes are far more mysterious.

Unusual Airport Codes

The following information comes from a number of sources including Dave English, the SkyGod.

  • Chicago O’Hare – ORD: Years ago, there was a community just west of Chicago called Orchard Place; during the 1940’s, it became the site of a military (later, commercial) airport called Orchard Field and was given the code ORD. In 1949, the airport was renamed for WW II ace Edward Henry “Butch” O’Hare, but nobody bothered to change the original code designation.
  • Cincinnati – CVG: Why didn’t they use CIN? For one thing, that was already being used by Carroll, Iowa’s municipal airport. CVG was chosen for the Ohio airport because the facility is actually located near Covington, Kentucky.
  • Los Angeles – LAX and Phoenix – PHX: What’s with the X’s? In the very early days of flight, some airports were designated by the two-letter codes used by the National Weather Service used for cities. When the system required more letters, in some cases they simply tacked on an X.
  • Nashville – BNA: Back in the 1930s, Col. Harry Berry helped build the Nashville airport and the B in BNA stands for Berry. If you’re looking for the airport designated NAS, look in Nassau.
  • Orlando – MCO: This code was selected back when the airport was still called by its original name, McCoy Air Force Base.
  • Toronto – YYZ: Canadian airports mostly start with a Y but there’s precious little in the way of explanation we could find beyond the letter being assigned to the entire region. Only, there are exceptions since Yuma, Arizona’s airport also begins with Y (yes, it’s YUM). As one history buff explained, “Airport codes evolved rather haphazardly.”

Crazy Airport Codes

You might be surprised how amusing some of these codes can be. Some examples:

  • Barra, Scotland – BRR: Well, it can get cold there.
  • Fresno CA – FAT: Well, it’s memorable, anyway.
  • Grand Rapids MI – GRR: I’d be polite to these gate agents.
  • Sandusky, OH – SKY: As close to perfect as an airport code gets.
  • Doha, Qatar – DOH: Homer Simpson would be right at home.
  • Nantucket, MA – ACK: What you say when the plane is delayed.
  • Lovelock, NV – LOL: This is a general aviation airport, not commercial, but its code is simply irresistible.

This one may be the zaniest of all.

  • Sioux City, IowaSUX: 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 T-shirts and mugs they sell.

Why Knowing Airport Codes is Important

A few years ago, a couple’s trip was messed up big-time thanks to an airline mistake with airport codes, a mistake the unlucky travelers didn’t pick up on. As the Los Angeles Times explained, the couple thought they were heading to Dakar in Africa (DKR) but their tickets were misprinted with DAC which is Dhaka in Bangladesh. The Times added, “For the geographically challenged, Dakar is the westernmost city on the African mainland. Dhaka is about 6,900 miles away in South Asia. They are on different continents.” 

Next time you fly, you might want to glance at the code on your boarding pass. It could save you from a wrong-way trip. At the very least it might give you a laugh.

Rick Seaney
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