Photo: Peter Titmuss/Shutterstock

The Secret Meanings Behind Airport Codes, According to a Pilot

Travel Airports + Flying
by Louis Graham Dec 4, 2018

From your boarding pass to your luggage tags, airport codes are a small but ubiquitous part of traveling the world by air. Because we’re too busy stripping our clothes and ripping our carry-ons apart at the security check, we don’t give much thought to the meaning behind the three little letters that form airport codes. But, like the many other aspects of air travel, there’s more to them than meets the eye. Here is the meaning behind the world’s airport codes so that the next time you want to show off your travel knowledge, you’ve got some material handy.

What’s the deal with airport codes?

Airport codes didn’t start off as airport codes at all. In the pioneer days of air travel, pilots relied on weather reports broadcast from radio stations set up by the National Weather Service (NWS). In the 1930s, most of the big cities had an NWS weather station, so it was common for aviators to describe routes between airports using the city’s two-letter weather station identifiers. As air travel became more and more common, and airports more and more plentiful, it was apparent that using one code to describe multiple airports in one city was not going to work, so the government decided to give each airport a unique three-letter code. Airports that originally had NWS stations were allowed to keep their original codes. For example, NWS beacon LA in Los Angeles was given an X to comply with the three-letter mandate and henceforth became known as LAX. Portland weather station PD also kept its identifier. Today the Portland airport code is PDX.

Some are funny. Some suck.

No one could have foreseen the age of abbreviated conversation via text and email when airport codes were assigned. Today, some airport codes have taken on whole new meanings due to the evolution of our electronic language. For instance, Nevada’s Derby Field happily owns the airport code of LOL. In the case of Sioux City, Iowa, the airport code is a little less amusing: SUX. Try as it may, Sioux City, Iowa, has been unsuccessful in its campaign to change its airport code.

“Bad” Airport

In most cases, airport codes are obvious letter combinations sounding like or abbreviating a city’s name. In the case of Malaga, Spain, the airport code MAL was quickly rejected. The word mal in Spanish translates to “bad” — not a good look for an airport. The code was swiftly changed from MAL to AGP where the A and G are letters in the city name, and the P was just a no-meaning filler letter.

Why the Y in Canada?

Most Canadian airports codes begin with the letter Y. Most people think that the Y defines the airport as actually being located in Canada, but it’s a little more complicated than that. When Canada followed the United States in using three-letter airport codes, it wanted to be able to communicate to pilots whether the airport had a weather reporting station. The Y in Canadian airport codes stands for “yes” (as in, “Yes, the airport has a weather reporting station”), and airports without weather reporting were given a W which stands for “without.”

The hidden letter in airport codes (what they aren’t telling you)

To pilots, airport codes actually have four letters, not three. Just like making international phone calls, airports have country codes. For example, all airports in the United States actually begin with the letter K (KJFK). Airports in Canada begin with the letter C (CYUL), and airports in Europe begin with the letter E (EGLL).

An apple for Chicago’s ORD code

Chicago O’Hare is one of the busiest airport in the world — ranked number six with 80 million passengers annually. One would think that such a popular airport in the large city of Chicago would have a more memorable airport code than the unoriginal ORD, but there’s more to it than travelers may know. O’Hare’s airport code, ORD, actually stands for “Orchard.” Before O’Hare Airport was the international hub that it is today, it was known as Orchard Field due to the fact that its runway was in close proximity to the German community of Orchard Place and its apple orchard.

JFK before John F. Kennedy

As international travel became more popular, it became apparent that New York’s Laguardia airport would not be able to handle the influx of aircraft. It was time to build a new airport, and for this, New York purchased the Idlewild golf course near Jamaica Bay in Queens in the 1940s. It was there that the beginnings of one of the busiest airports in the world began. Initially, the airport’s code was IDL to commemorate the fallen golf course. In 1963, in the months following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the airport and its corresponding code were changed to JFK.

The story behind Washington Dulles International Airport (IAD)

Originally, Dulles International Airport’s code was DIA until confusion with a nearby airport changed that. Washington DC has two airports serving travelers in and out of the nation’s capital: Washington Reagan (DCA) and Washington Dulles (IAD). In the times before computerized flight plans and tickets, humans were required to handwrite the information on these critical documents. If a flight planner or ticket agent had poor penmanship or got a little lazy, DCA would look like DIA. The confusion and possible safety risk caused officials to scramble DIA into what we have today, IAD.

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