Getting to Know Airport Codes – For the Fun of It
Vol.8 Issue 7
US Map with Airport Codes

Have you ever seen a three-letter code on your luggage tag or airline ticket and wondered what it was? This code is used by air traffic controllers and airline logistics personnel when developing and tracking flight plans. These codes are also associated with radio call signs to aeronautical navigation aids.

Two official entities, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) assign specific codes to every airport. It is their responsibility to ensure that these codes are consistent across countries, continents, etc. In actuality, the codes are four-letters in length: The first letter represents the country, the USA is (K) and then the other three letters reference a particular airport. For example, Will Rogers World Airport is KOKC , with the "K" representing the U.S. and the "OKC" for the specific airport code. All Canadian airport codes begin with the letter (C), such as the Ottawa Macdonald-Cartier International Airport is CYOW. The U.S. Navy reserved the prefix (N) for all of its 4-letter codes, hence North Island Naval Air Station is KNZY.

The first airport codes were established in the 1930’s and were only two letters. The airlines could choose what they wanted as their two-letter designation. These letters represented codes with airports using the National Weather Service two-letter identifier. With the expansion of air travel, more and more airports were established, and within a 10-year span the growth required using a three-letter code. For a long time, the Los Angeles International Airport’s code was simply known as "LA" but the expansion required more standardization, so it evolved to (LAX) in 1947.

The system has evolved so that no two airports share the same three-letter code. The codes are formed by ensuring that it is original and no other airport is using it. Codes can be developed based on the name of the city, the name of the airport, or something relevant to the area. When exploring the different codes, sometimes you can guess which codes represent which airports, but there are some codes where trying to identify the airport is not so easy. Examples include: Chicago O’Hare’s airport code is ORD, which represents the location’s previous name, Orchard Field. Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is MSY, which is named after aviator John Moisant (the first person to fly across the English Channel with a passenger). He lived in Louisiana until 1910. St. Pete’s-Clearwater International Airport code is PIE, allowing for a creative marketing website for the airport.

Derby Field Airport in Nevada serves Lovelock City and uses LOL as their airport code; Omega Airport in Namibia is OMG; EEK is an airport code used in a little small fishing town in western Alaska; Nashville’s BNA got the "B" from Colonel Harry Berry, the Head of Tennessee’s Work Progress Administration through the Great Depression. In the 1940’s New York’s LaGuardia Airport had purchased a nearby Idlewild golf course near Jamaica Bay in Queens, so its code was (IDL), but in 1963, following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, it changed its airport code to (JFK).

Some facilities have a sense of humor with their codes, as SUX represents the airport code for Sioux City, Iowa. Panama City, Florida’s code is ECP (for Everyone Can Party) since it claims being a popular spring break destination for college students. Since North Carolina has "First in Flight" on their license plates, they wanted to continue their theme, so their airport code in Kill Devil Hills is (FFA), for First Flight Airport since it is the location where the Wright Brothers had their first successful flight.

The airport in Knoxville was built on land donated by a wealthy resident, Bettie Tyson. She asked that the facility be named for her only son, Charlie, who was killed in action during World War II when his plane went down near the English Coast. Lt. Tyson’s name lives on as (TYS). Kahului Airport code is named for local aviation pioneer, Jimmy Hogg (OGG). Orlando International Airport was founded as Orlando Army Air Field #2 but uses (MCO) - having been renamed McCoy Air Force Base in 1959, honoring a wing commander who crashed at the field in 1958.

Luggage Tag with 3 letter code (ROM) on it, which stands for Rome, Italy

From the smallest airport, Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, - Caribbean Island of Saba (SAB) - to the largest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), each airport has an unmistakable code and story to go with it. There’s a place called Chicken, Alaska which houses a very small population (they use the code CKX). One might think that they would have (CHK) as an airport code, but that code was already taken by Chickasha Municipal Airport in Oklahoma. HIP belongs to Headingly, Australia, and HOT appropriately belongs to Hot Springs, Arkansas. With Halloween coming up, BOO is the code for Norway’s Bodo Airport.

While knowing these codes is not a requirement for air travel, it does make for interesting conversation, and you’ll be able to recognize more of them as you travel. This comes in handy when cities share the same name like Sydney, Australia or Sydney, Nova Scotia. You can now double check your luggage tag just to make sure that you and your luggage get to the same place.

Federal Aviation Aministration (FAA) seal