We have all seen the three-letter airport codes used for baggage sorting. It is easy to understand the logic behind using MIA for Miami, DFW for Dallas-Fort Worth, and SEA for Seattle-Tacoma. But how did the powers that be decide which California city gets the code SAN? And should I take it personally that my Fresno-bound bag is tagged FAT?
The codes given airports are determined by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Generally they are based on the first letters of a city’s name (Boston, BOS) or on significant combinations of letters (Salt Lake City, SLC). But sometimes the reasons are buried in history, deriving from earlier names for the piece of land which has since become an airport. Or the airport has been re-named to honor someone, but the code remains the same. Having more than one airport to serve a city requires additional codes also, so things get “interesting.”
There is a wealth of confusion and trivia treasure possible in airport codes. Here are a few examples.
ORD Best known by its WW II flying ace namesake, Edward Henry O’Hare airport retains its original Orchard field code name.
JFK Formerly Idlewild Airport (after the Long Island golf course it displaced). John F. Kennedy Airport.
MKE Milwaukee, named for controversial Billy Mitchell, father of US Air Force.
SAN “Spirit of St. Louis” was built here, hence Lindbergh Field. San Diego, CA airport got the SAN code.
IAH Named in 1997 for George H. Bush 41, Houston’s international airport. The smaller airport Hobby retains the city code HOU
BWI Now named for its famous local son, Thurgood Marshall Airport was originally Friendship Airport. Marshall was the first African American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. BWI stands for Baltimore Washington International Airport as it is half way between the two cities.
SNA Best known as John Wayne or Orange County airport. The initials come from the city location, Santa Ana. This is one of the hardest for me to remember as people refer to it by all three names.
BUR Burbank, CA now honors Bob Hope Airport, but most say Hollywood Airport
DCA As in District of Columbia, now Ronald Reagan Washington Airport, formerly “National”. Many still say National.
GEG, Now this is a good one. Spokane, WA Originally Sunset Field, later named for Harold Geiger an Army aviation pioneer.
IAD Named for Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, it is west of DC. Dulles International Airport, but the code is IAD not DIA?
LGA NYC airport named for Fiorello LaGuardia, popular city mayor.
MSY. New Orleans! Now this is a story. Daredevil aviator Joh Moisant died in 1910 in an airplane crash on agricultural land where the airport is now located. The code MSY was derived from Moisant Stock Yards which the airport displaces. Lakefront Airport, very small, retained the city’s code NEW. I did not know this airport existed until now! Now MSY is called the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. I am sure not many say all that!
There are old names still using the original codes. PEK Peking no longer but Beijing and MAA Madras now Chennai for example. And cities that have no airport code. There is no NYC or CHI. So if you wonder why I am crazy!