The Wacky Logic Behind Airport Codes

What is the meaning of airport codes? Rick Seaney explains.

March 30, 2010, 8:07 AM

Sept. 22, 2010 — -- Most of you fliers out there are familiar with JFK, LAX and DFW -- the airport codes for New York's Kennedy, Los Angeles International and Dallas-Ft. Worth. But how many of you have flown to SUX?

Yes, SUX - the airport code for Sioux City, Iowa. Luckily, residents there have a sense of humor; instead of bemoaning their unfortunate appellation, they celebrate it: the airport's website sells souvenirs including t-shirts and caps emblazoned with the bold SUX logo.

It could be worse. It appears a kindergartner might have had a hand in picking some of these airport codes: Russia's Bolshoye Savino Airport is stuck with the unlovely designation PEE, while Brazil's Poco De Caldas Airport has to live with POO. Then there's Rotorua, New Zealand ROT while Louisiana's Barksdale Air Force Base is just plain BAD.

Ever wonder how these codes came into being and what they mean? I'm going to tell you, plus I'll give more examples of truly weird ones. Like FAT and GRR.

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First things first: FAT is the airport code for Fresno, Calif. (and from what I understand, the locals aren't crazy about it); and while GRR may sound like an anger management therapy center, it's actually the code for Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids, Mich.

Where do these codes come from?

The assignment of these codes is administered by the Montreal-based International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the codes cover locations (mainly airports) around the globe.

A lot of these codes are no brainers: LGA stands for LaGuardia in New York, HOU is for Houston's Hobby Airport and SLC is for Salt Lake City.

History of Airport Codes

But what about, say, LAX -- where did that "X" come from? It goes back to the early days of passenger air travel when airports simply used the same two letter codes that the National Weather Service used for cities, never dreaming they'd ever need more letters for more combinations. When they did, some airports simply added an "X" to their name, and that's why you have LAX or PHX for Phoenix.

But how to explain Chicago O'Hare's ORD? For that I turned to the Sky God -- pilot Dave English. A few years back, he wrote an excellent explanation piece for the Airline Pilots Association journal that tells the story of a now defunct community just west of Chicago called Orchard Place. In the 1940's, it became the site of a military (and later, commercial) airport called Orchard Field, which was renamed for WW II ace Edward Henry "Butch" O'Hare, in 1949. However, nobody bothered to change the original "Orchard" code designation of ORD.

Ever wonder why Orlando has the code of MCO? Hint: before it was the gateway to theme parks, it was McCoy Air Force Base.

History buffs might have been able to solve those little mysteries eventually, but try explaining these two Tennessee puzzlers: Nashville's airport code of BNA and Knoxville's TYS designation.

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The "B" in BNA stands for Berry -- Col. Harry Berry, to be precise, who headed the state's Works Progress Administration during the Depression when the airport was built. The facility was named for the colonel in 1937. The "NA" in BNA simply stands for Nashville.

As for the Knoxville airport, it was built on land donated by a wealthy resident name Bettie Tyson. She asked that the new facility be named for her only son Charlie, who was killed in action during WWI when his plane went down off the English coast. Even though Lt. Tyson died more than ninety years ago, his name lives on at TYS.

Origin of Three-Letter Airport Codes

But if you really want to see a lot of great airport codes, head to Alaska. The word transportation pretty much means flying for a lot of folks there, since the state itself notes that 82 percent of Alaska's communities are not served by roads. Mind-boggling, huh?

So they fly. And while Alaska has big airports like Ted Stevens International in Anchorage (ANC), the state's Department of Transportation & Public Facilities also owns 253 rural airports -- many of them one-runway affairs with landing strips made of dirt or gravel. And great code names.

Like EEK, a fitting code for the little community of Eek in western Alaska. Then there's WOW for Willow, GNU for Goodnews Bay and UNK for Unalakleet Airport.

Now let's look at tiny Chicken, Alaska (according to its folksy website, the population is "usually between 17 and 37, depending on who you ask.") You might expect its graveled-runway to proudly boast the CHK code, but alas, Chickasha Municipal Airport in Okla. was already using that one, so Chicken settled for CKX (remember those "X's"). And forget FWL; Farewell, Alaska already had dibs on that.

Back to the lower 48 and another mystery: why is Cincinnati called CVG and not CIN? Well for one thing, CIN belongs to the municipal airport in Carroll, Iowa. For another, Cincinnati's airport is not actually in Cincinnati, or in Ohio, for that matter; it's across the river near Covington, Ky. Get it? Covington = CVG (I can hear the groans now).

I could go on and on, listing my favorites, like Harbour (Eolie Island) Airport in Italy (ZIP) or the airport near Dumai, Indonesia (DUM) not to mention HIP (Headingly, Australia) and HOT (Hot Springs, Ark.) or Norway's Bodo Airport (BOO) or…well, as noted, I could go on.

Fair warning; if I ever ask you to play a friendly game of "guess-the-airport-code", better put your hand on your wallet. I'm pretty good, or, you might say I'm AOK (airport code for Karpathos, Greece).

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website,, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.

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