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Airport Codes Explained

Working in Travel Retail, or Aviation in general, you soon realise you need to learn a lot of airport codes, or you find that airport codes gradually imprint themselves on your memory.

Getting your airport codes straight is important for many reasons, but particularly when you are using and compiling data. Many people make the easy mistake of assuming that you can always decipher an airport’s code if you know it’s full name, the code of a nearby airport or an airport with a similar name. Not so, I’m afraid. Here, then, is Air4cast’s handy guide to the world’s airport codes, why they are what they are, how airport code assignment works and a handy tip or two to remember them.

If you’ve ever wondered at some of the strangest airport codes out there, this is for you!

Note: this article will deal with the commonly used IATA three-letter airport codes. These are not to be confused with ICAO’s four-letter codes.

Coding History

A hundred years ago, the landscape of airports across the world was very different. Though this is hotly contested, the title for ‘World’s First Airport’ often goes to College Park Airport in Maryland, USA. In 1909, when it was opened, ‘airports’ were really nothing more than open, grassy spaces where an aircraft could safely land. Planes would approach at whatever angle suited the pilot best in the wind. Hamburg opened two years later, to hold the title of oldest commercial airport, followed by Bremen in 1913, and so on and so forth.

After World War One and through the 1930s, airports were being built in greater numbers, and the old system of using the US National Weather Service’s two letter city/place codes became less and less practical. The move was made to give every airport a three-letter code: LA become LAX, and PD (Portland Airport) became PDX.

In many cases, the three letters used now are the first three letters of the airport’s name, but, as you know, this is not always the case.

So how do they get their codes, then?

Here are a few of the most common conventions for giving airports a three-letter code:

1. The First Three letters – many airports are given the first three letters of their city name, like ATL (Atlanta Airport), SIN (Singapore Airport) or MEX (Mexico City Airport).

2. Component Letters – others have three letters taken from their place name, where their place name may be more complicated than just a city, like LBA (Leeds Bradford Airport) or DFW (Dallas-Fort Worth).

3. Airport vs City

✓ some airports are coded after their own, unique name, rather than the city they serve, like TXL (Berlin Tegel Airport) or SXF (Berlin Schönefeld Airport). This is very common for multi-airport cities like London (LHR (London Heathrow), LGW (London Gatwick) etc., Paris, Tokyo and many others.

✓ other multi-city airports use a city-derived code for the first airport and assign a name-based code for any subsequent airports, like in Bangkok: BKK (Suvarnabhumi) and DMK (Don Mueang).

✓ sometimes solutions are needed when there are two cities in the world with the same name, for example in the case of Birmingham. BHM (Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham Alabama, USA) and BHX (Birmingham Airport in Birmingham, UK)

4. Pronunciation vs Spelling – an airport code can also sometimes reflect the pronunciation of its name or place name, rather than taking its first letters. Nadi International Airport’s code is NAN. In Fijian, ‘d’ is often pronounced with a prenasalized stop.

5. Historical and Administrative

✓ Canadian airports have something of a monopoly on the ‘Y’s for the start of their airport codes. This has its roots in the early years of their airports. Canada at one time had weather stations all over the country and would identify them too, with two-letter codes. If an airport happened to be attached to a station, they would add on a ‘Y’ at the start, for ‘Yes’. Be careful though; many large Canadian airports start their code on a Y, but not all.

✓ many smaller Canadian airports have codes which begin with a W, X or Z. During the building of the Canadian transcontinental railways, the government of the time gave each station its own two-letter Morse code: VR (Vancouver), TZ (Toronto), QB (Quebec) and so on. When the first airports were established, they were given the same codes. Coding the airports was done in conjunction with the United States, and Y was so seldom used for the codes of American airports, so the Canadian airports retained many of their ‘Yes’ starters. The Y was changed to a Z if it conflicted with an existing airport code.

✓ some airport codes are an hommage to an important or related historical figure. Knoxville Airport in Tennessee, USA (code TYS), was built on land donated by the Tyson family in memory of the son they lost in WWI.

✓ in the USA, all airport codes beginning with an ‘N’ are reserved for the Navy, hence: EWR (Newark Airport).

✓ in the USA the letters W, K, Q and Z are also reserved as the starting letters of an airport code: for radio stations, international telecommunications points and special addresses. This is why we have ILM (Wilmington Airport) and EYW (Key West Airport).

✓ many airports retain a reference to their historical place name in their code, even after official name or spelling has been changed: PEK (Beijing Airport, formerly Peking), RGN (Yangon Airport, formerly Rangoon)

✓ some airport codes are based on a previous airport name, such as ORD (Chicago O’Hare, formerly known as Orchard Field)

Who decides all of this?

If you’re looking at a three-letter IATA airport code, then this is decided by the International Air Transport Association. The list of airport codes are published once a year or thereabouts and they are administered by IATA in their headquarters in Montreal.

For more information on airport codes and other unusual aspects to Travel Retail data, stay tuned for the next in our Learning Series from Air4casts or get in touch to find out more

the author

Emma is the Air4casts Marketing Director and Newscast Editor.

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