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The story behind airport codes...

By Chris Chamberlin     Filed under: airports

Three-letter airport codes are part of the alphabet soup of travel, and while some are glaringly obvious others are completely cryptic.

So what's really in an airport code? Let's start with some homegrown examples.

The airport codes for Sydney, Melbourne and Perth –  SYDMEL and PER – make perfect sense, being drawn from the first three letters of each city's name. But this simple convention can't always be followed.

For example, Brisbane is BNE instead of BRI because that code had already been allocated to an airport at the Italian city of Bari.

(Bari missed out on the more sensible BAR because that moniker was assigned to the now-abandoned Baker Army Airfield on a tiny uninhabited atoll in the Pacific Ocean).

Even when a few letters are skipped, airport codes like BNE, Adelaide's ADL, Auckland's AKL and Hong Kong's HKG are still a close fit to their locale.

Other airport codes, however, step further away from making immediate sense.

The X factor

Almost every traveller knows that Los Angeles and LAX are one and the same – but where did that superfluous X come from?

That's a remnant from the early days of air travel when airports were referred to by a two-letter 'weather station' code, which in this case was simply LA.

When the growth of air travel created the need for three-letter codes, the airport’s original designation had an ‘X’ amended to ease the transition, as did Portland (PDX).

Dubai followed suit due to DUB already belonging to Dublin, Ireland – so the airport code of DXB was chosen with the ‘X’ having no meaning other than to fill out the three characters.

Closer to home, the proposed Sydney West Airport at Badgery's Creek has already been christened as SWZ for similar reasons.

One city, many airports

In the case of London, the city's three major airports take the first letter of the city's name and append a two-letter code for the airport itself. That's how we ended up with LHR for London Heathrow, LGW for London Gatwick and LCY for London City.

But even then things aren't always consistent, with London Stansted Airport – home to many low-cost airlines – tagged as STN instead of L-something.

WTF?

No, there isn't an airport burdened with WTF, but those three letters could well represent the reaction of first-time travellers to airport codes which bear no resemblance to their location.

Beijing is a well-known example, with the code of PEK.

PEK represents the old anglicised name of Peking, which was changed to Beijing after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Both Latin spellings are approximations of the city's Chinese pronunciation, which sounds a little like "pay-cheeng". Although the city name changed in the west, the airport code never did.

Another is Chicago's ORD. While officially known as O'Hare International Airport, the original O'Hare Field strip was adjacent to a small farming community named Orchard Place. The airport soon took the name Orchard Field Airport, which became ORD. 

Oh, Canada...

Canada throws another curveball. All of the nation's airport codes begin with the letter Y, regardless of the city's name.

That's another holdover from Ye Olde Days of Aviation, but this time to do with radio transmitters instead of weather stations.

In the early days of broadcast radio the North American market was divided into three geographic zones, each carrying a regional-specific letter to be used in front of a station's callsign.

US stations were assigned W if they were located east of the Mississippi River and K if they were west of the mighty Miss. All radio stations in Canada were to begin with – you guessed it – Y.

That at least explains Vancouver being YVR and Ottawa being YOW. Toronto's appellation of YYZ is more of a puzzler, and came about because YTO was already assigned as Toronto’s generic region code (rather than being assigned to a specific airport).

YYZ happened to be the radio transmitter at a village called Malton, which is where Toronto Pearson International Airport is located today, so the oddball callsign stuck.

So there you have it: airport codes are a little more than three randomly-assigned letters stuck onto luggage, and sometimes there's a bit of a story behind each one.

 

 

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About Chris Chamberlin

Chris lives by the motto that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, a great latte, an opera ticket and a glass of wine!

 

Have something to say? Post a comment now!

1 on 11/4/14 by watson374

This is a nice nugget of backstory, especially for those of us who think in these codes!

2 on 11/4/14 by smit0847

Excellent article - I've always wondered why some airports have completely obvious codes while some have such random ones!

I would also love a follow-up article on why airlines have the same issue - VA and BA are very obvious but 3K and D7?!

1 on 11/4/14 by Hugo

There's only so many different two-letter airline codes you can have. Virgin Australia got lucky to get the VA code when it became vacant (I forget who had it before) while Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America are stuck with VS and VX. 

In the case of Jetstar Asia, just about everything starting with J is already taken (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airline_codes) including J0 to J9. Not sure why they went with 3K in particular though.

1 on 15/4/14 by Cluffne

Qantas actually purchased the legal Company name of Virgin Australia,  when Virgin hinted of landing in Australia. Hence the Virgin Blue name, as Virgin then could not use the Qantas owned "Virign Australia" name.  

After 10 Years of Qantas owning this, Qantas stopped paying for the Business Name rights and Virign Blue actually got to use their name under Virgin Australia Holdings.

Ironic how Virign Australia is now the biggest threat to Qantas, when Qantas played very dirty in the beginning, and Virgin Blue struggled.  

How the tables turn..  I think its called Karma!!!

1 on 23/6/14 by AJW

Cluffne , good story but not true at all. Singapore Airlines owned 49% of Virgin Atlantic at the time and they owned the rights to use and licence the Virgin name worldwide.

When Virgin Blue was set-up the name choosen via a compeition and had to be approved by Singapore Airlines, and they could only fly within Australia using that name.

Hence when they started flying to the Pacific they used Pacific Blue and on long haul V Australia. Once SQ brought a share in DJ and they were looking to rebrand then they started to use the more conventional Virgin Australia name and luck had it the VA code was free for use.

So nothing what so ever to do with Qantas.

1 on 23/6/14 by Cluffne

Thanks for the update and info.  

3 on 11/4/14 by RK

The 'Avgeek' in me loves this article. My favourite airport codes in Australia would have to be Proserpine - PPP and Gold Coast - OOL.

1 on 11/4/14 by Sam

Gold Coast is OOL because it used to be called Coolangatta Airport which is the main subrub.

1 on 11/4/14 by watson374

It's also why Sunshine Coast is MCY - Maroochydore.

4 on 11/4/14 by enojet

Adding to the list of airport codes that are stuck with their old city names:

  • Guangzhou - Canton (CAN)
  • Mumbai - Bombay (BOM)
  • Yangon - Rangoon (RGN)

1 on 11/4/14 by watson374

Chennai - formerly Madras (MAA)

1 on 11/4/14 by RK

Beijing - PEK

2 on 11/4/14 by curly

Ahhh, you beat me to it - MAA. Also Fukuoka, JP below.  I heard if you remove the Y from Canada codes it will be the same code used for the domestic rail stations? YVR = VancouverOne that I always forget is ZQN and if you're going to the USA for a flutter make sure you book LAS, NV and not LVS, NM. You can check out where your initials will take you (3 letters) and from just you christian and surname will also give you an airline code.CMC - Camocim CE, BRAZILCC -  ??Different information??

 

2 on 11/4/14 by spinoza

Yeah, I thought CAN and PEK was pretty sensible. I spelt Beijing as Peking growing up, maybe it makes more sense for people who speak Cantonese, which is where I think these anglicised names come from. Beijing is basically what the mandarin pronounciation sounds like, while in Cantonese it sounds more like Peking. 

Old school diplomats like Chris Patten still refuse to use the new spelling because it makes no sense. Where do people speak Cantonese? In Canton, not Guangzhou! What the heck is Myanmar or Mumbai?! If this trend continues Hong Kong will soon be Xianggang (the mandarin spelling) which would be horrifying!

Last year I flew into KWL (Guilin), which apparently use to be spelt Kweilin 

1 on 11/4/14 by spinoza

Cant find the exact quote but this was from a news article:

We used to have a simple, if unofficial, rule about the spelling and pronunciation of foreign cities and indeed countries. Essentially, if the place was well-known and we might speak of it frequently, we employed an anglicised version of the name. So, for instance, we talk about Paris, not Paree, and when it comes to the better-known and more often visited Italian cities, we speak of Rome, Florence, Naples, Venice and Milan. Likewise with countries, we go to Germany, not Deutschland, and Spain, not Espana. This has been our practice for centuries, and it is the common practice of other Europeans too. So, just as Munchen becomes Munich in English, Italians speak of it as Monaco. From the Gare du Nord, you take the Eurostar to Londres, rather than London, and it is very unlikely that this offends even the most fanatical of anti-Europeans here.

3 on 13/4/14 by Amjid

LYP is Faisalabad (Pakistan). It has LYP which is after its former name of Lyallpur (Named after Former British General Lyall).

MUX - Multan (assumes the 'X' similar to LAX and DXB - just to fill the void).

5 on 11/4/14 by sagidec

Yea - the odd ones are well, just odd. Few that I can think of the top of my head

BKI - Kota Kinabalu which doesn't make sense.

KIX - nice Osaka-Kansai airport name for kicks

FUK - well, need I say more.

MSY - bears no resemblance to the name of New Orleans airport

YUL - Montreal airport - The Y prefixes can really throw one off when you have so many Canadian domestic flights and you want to speak in code.

SXF / TXL - Berlin airports with X incorporated

 

1 on 11/4/14 by Hugo

MSY is for Moisant Stock Yards, after the stock yards that used to be on the site and John Moisant who crashed his plane into them in 1910.

2 on 11/4/14 by tmsmile

I assume KIX stands for Kansai International with the X being a filler.

As for BKi. Perhaps Borneo Kinabalu?

6 on 11/4/14 by Nguyen

SGN (Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat airport) is derived from the former name of Saigon.

1 on 11/4/14 by franz

Not Unusual though but it in some cases makes one thing of something they do by not going to church on Sundays is SIN which ironically is the code for Singapore.

7 on 11/4/14 by gredgy69

Chris, thanks for this. I wondered how some of the codes were chosen. A very interesting article.

8 on 11/4/14 by Himeno

Would using the ICAO codes instead of the IATA codes make more sense?

1 on 11/4/14 by watson374

YSSY instead of SYD? I don't think so...

9 on 11/4/14 by Daniel

One day I would like to try this routing: EAT-PEE-POO-NAP.

(from One Mile At A Time)

1 on 11/4/14 by madge

How about FUK-SIN-HEL? It's actually possible (SQ FUK-SIN / AY SIN-HEL)

1 on 12/4/14 by pgcsingapore

Or if we want to get onto waypoints, there's an approach path in the NW USA which takes you over ITAWT - ITAWA -PUDYE - TTATT...

Codes can change; when Salisbury, Rhodesia became Harare, Zimbabwe the code went from SAY to HRE.

Remember, your aircraft flies to (ICAO code) but your bags go to (IATA code). That is, the pilots will take you to YSSY and the groundies will send your bags to SYD.

10 on 11/4/14 by KK

SHA - Shanghai Hongqiao

PVG - Shanghai Pudong

1 on 11/4/14 by spinoza

yeah.. whats with the V?!

1 on 11/4/14 by KK

Both PUG and PUD were used, so the airport selected "V" as it looks like "U".

11 on 11/4/14 by enojet

I read somewhere that you can go to HEL via SIN.

1 on 3/7/14 by Alex_upgrade

YES you CAN via Yasouj and Canton (Guangzhou).

12 on 11/4/14 by RK

I've oftern wondered why there is a 'Q' in Ayers Rock airport code (AYQ)

13 on 11/4/14 by Paulkai

I had to learn 400 airport codes in travel college...ps pug is pt Augusta

14 on 11/4/14 by slim

When living in the US, I always used to wonder about EWR (nEWaRk), but soon figured that out.More interesting in my travels there were AVP (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) -as it the airport is based in AVoca, PA), and Harrisburg PA (MDT) - never figured that one out though...  any takers?

15 on 11/4/14 by SoftBedPlease

Going to TSA? Don't worry, you shouldn't expect to be summarily groped due to security regulation. You're actually just going to the less known airport in Taipei, Songshan (cf. TPE, which is the more well-known Taipei Taoyuan).

Interestingly, Nadi Airport, Fiji, is symbolised as NAN... which happens to be more along the lines of how the name of the town is pronounced, viz. "Nan-dee".

To add to the London "oddity", little known London Southend airport (familiar to those who may fly Easyjet) is SEN.

For those of you who think Sioux City, Iowa, USA sucks...you might be right. The code for the city's airport is SUX. The mayor once petitioned the FAA to have the controversial IATA code changed, but after the FAA offered some rather dull alternatives (including GAY), they decided to keep SUX... and embraced the idea instead.

Key West airport in Florida has the IATA code EYW, but all ICAO codes in the US is just the IATA code affixed with a K... so the ICAO is, comically, KEYW.

You can impress many flight attendants by demonstrating your IATA code prowess. You'll surprise them further when you answer in the negative to their follow-up question if you work for an airline or in the travel industry.

1 on 14/4/14 by Himeno

You can impress many flight attendants by demonstrating your IATA code prowess. You'll surprise them further when you answer in the negative to their follow-up question if you work for an airline or in the travel industry.

I've done that to heaps of travel agents.

16 on 11/4/14 by SeatNextToYours

There may be others out there, but  Port Moresby's the only city I can think of whose residents (and everyone else in PNG) predominantly refer to it by its airline code - POM - in casual (non-air travel related) conversation...

1 on 12/4/14 by smartyy

we call Sydney "Syd" and Melbourne "Mel"

1 on 12/4/14 by SeatNextToYours

I've never said "SYD" or "MEL" in conversation that doesn't surround air travel/airports. In PNG they occasionally even refer to Port Moresby as POM on the news during non-air travel related stories...

1 on 13/4/14 by Amjid

The locals in Pakistan refer to Lahore (in-text) as LHR, which is London Heathrow... 

Also, with E next to R on the Keyboard, there has been instances of baggage being checked through to LHR, rather than LHE!

17 on 12/4/14 by crosscourt

Well done and fascinating. Now how about a story on how airlines assign numbers to the  eg: QF002, how are the digits determined and also how are the 2 letter (in 99% of cases) assigned to an airline? Its not always logical.

1 on 13/4/14 by Julian

Not sure about Qantas but Cathay has a system (sort of) for assigning flight numbers: 2 digits flights are cargo flights; CX 1xx is Australia/New Zealand; 2xx is European; 4xx is Northeast Asia (Tokyo, Seoul....); 8xx is North American....and so on. But different airlines have their own ways to assign flight numbers and sometimes it is just random.

18 on 12/4/14 by TheRealBabushka

Chris,

Who regulates these codes and what is the process of changing them if at all possible?

If or when the new Sydney airport gets built, can it adopt the SYD code, the way Kuala Lumpur airport at Sepang took on KUL and left the old Subang airport with SZB?

Stansted, much to Ryan Air's consternation is in Essex not London. One might argue Croydon (LGW) is part of London but definitely not Stansted. LTN airport starts with an L not because it's north of London but because Luton, Bedfordshire starts with an L.

1 on 12/4/14 by SoftBedPlease

According to Wikipedia (yes, references!), IATA three-letter airport codes are administered by IATA in Montreal according to IATA Resolution 763.

Indirectly, just because they can and what not, I believe codes in the USA must also pass by the US FAA (although I believe FAA and IATA codes need not be the same).

2 on 13/4/14 by Amjid

When Bangkok International Airport was transfered to their New Airport in 2006 in Suvarnabhumi, BKK was transferred accross. Meanwhile with the old airport assumed the code of DMK (Don Muang).

3 on 17/4/14 by Chuq

Whether or not the new airport takes on SYD would also depend on whether it replaces the old airport (like HKG) or whether it is a supplementary airport (like AVV).

4 on 29/5/14 by John

LGW is in Horley or Crawley, not Croydon, and these are most certainly not considered London.

LGW is 45km from London, compared to 59km for STN

19 on 12/4/14 by JBH

Facinating topic prompting some excellent factual posts, thanks Chris and fellow posters enjoyed and learnt a little more today......

1 on 12/4/14 by Yusef Danet

A big bonus point for anyone who can explain Boolgeeda, WA, a Virgin Aus destination....  OCM!

20 on 13/4/14 by Libertyscott

Full marks for whoever figures out FNJ - Pyongyang.

 

1 on 13/4/14 by SeatNextToYours

Freaky Northern Junta?

2 on 13/4/14 by crosscourt

oh what fun we could have with that one centered around their crazy leader.:)

21 on 17/4/14 by Dave

One of the more accurate codes is DUD, used by Dunedin, NZ. It always have a little chuckle to myself when booking flights or checking bags to there.

22 on 17/4/14 by Chuq

Something not touched upon on the article are whole-of-city codes - I don't know if these are used by IATA or just reserved, but in many flight search websites if you try to book from NYC to LON it will offer all options between the various New York City airports and the various London airports.

1 on 17/4/14 by Himeno

They are IATA city codes. There are others like TYO and OSA for Tokyo and Osaka.

23 on 17/4/14 by Longreach

Someone mentioned that the "Gold Coast" airport's code is OOL as it is basically in Coolangatta. It still is Coolangatta Airport, i.e. YBCG in the more informative ICAO designation, usually abbreviated in aviation circles - as against airline circles - to CG. It used to be the even more sensible ABCG: Australia, Brisbane FIR (Flight Information Region) followed by CG for Coolangatta, until ICAO, for no particularly good reason changed Australia's continental prefix to Y. As a professional aviation type rather than someone with an airline background, I've long wondered what prompted  IATA's efforts. The correlation, or lack of it, between ICAO codes and those dreamt up by the airline types of IATA is something Chris might like to explore in a future article.

24 on 16/7/14 by Glynn

on the topic of Saigon (SGN) for Ho Chi Minh - lets not forget St Petersburg (LED) for Leningrad

25 on 15/9/14 by scoobiedoodle

and chris... the airport code also used as port of discharge in shipping code as well.

26 on 17/10/14 by petrhsr

I always found CUN mildly amusing,  then I went there and found the place to be overrun with drunken redneck cuns, and never went back.

 

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