Decoding The Alphabet Soup

As one pilot recalls it, the somewhat heavy airline passenger complained to customer service that her bag had been singled out and tagged. She couldn’t understand how being overweight affected her bag. The perplexed customer service agent finally figured out that the passenger was upset because of the three-letter airport code on her baggage tag: FAT. She was traveling to Fresno, Calif.

FAT equals Fresno Air Terminal.

We’ve all heard tales of passengers en route to Boston (BOS) having their suitcase end up in Bogota (BOG), or sunning on the sands of Daytona Beach (DAB) while their swimsuit and flip-flops languish in Dayton, Ohio (DAY). Is there a method to this three-letter madness? Yes – sort of, and, in some cases, not really.

Airport location identifiers took off in the 1930s, about the time that wireless communication began to play a part in aviation, explains Janet Bednarek, an associate professor of history at the University of Dayton. Airports were booming, and there needed to be a distinct way to distinguish one from another.

Weather stations had successfully used a two-letter system for years. Bednarek, who specializes in the history of airports, says someone at the Bureau of Air Commerce, forerunner to the FAA, discovered a three-letter system would generate more than 17,500 combinations. Thus the location identifier was born.

Easy. Use the first three letters of a city name and – voilà ! – a perfect system. Not so fast. A few letters were commandeered. The Navy got N as the first letter for its naval air stations. The Federal Communications Commission kept K and W for radio and (soon to come) television stations. Q was assigned to all international communications and Transport Canada (for reasons not even a Canadian can explain) took Y. We can only be grateful the Army and Air Force opted out of the letter grab.

These days, who gets what is overseen by the International Air Transport Association, a global trade association of 240 airlines.

“Because weather stations were often located at airports, many simply added an X after their two-letter designation,” Bednarek says. So Los Angeles became the now famous LAX and Portland (Oregon), PDX.

Since the Navy had first dibs, any U.S. town starting with N had to come up with an alternative. Hence Newark is EWR and Norfolk is ORF. Airports within 200 miles of each other need distinct codes so as not to confuse pilots, one reason Reagan National Airport became DCA for District of Columbia Airport and nearby Dulles was tagged IAD for International Airport Dulles instead of DIA. Not that this rule holds true in every case, as Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) is barely a 747 away from Dallas’ Love Field (DAL).

Many locators are simply the first three letters of a city’s name: DEN Denver , ATL Atlanta , MIA Miami, HEL Helsinki. Or they at least make sense: SLC Salt Lake City, PHL Philadelphia or MSP Minneapolis/St. Paul. All London airports start with L, so Gatwick is LGW and Heathrow is LHR. Still it takes some insider knowledge to know EZE is Buenos Aires because the airport is in Ezeza, while Tokyo’s airport (NRT) is in Narita. Beijing (China) is PEK because the city was known to Westerners as Peking until the 1950s; similarly BOM was perfect for Bombay until it changed its name to Mumbai.

Other locators find their source in history. Spokane’s airport (GEG) is on the site of a former military base, Geiger Field. Chicago O’Hare is ORD because before it was dubbed O’Hare, the unincorporated land was called Orchard Field. Louisville’s SDF stands for Standiford Field, named after Dr. Elisha Standiford, a businessman and legislator who owned part of the land on which the airport was built. Orlando’s airport used to be McCoy Air Force Base, which explains why its locator is MCO, but not why your luggage goes to Monte Carlo.

Knoxville (TYS) airport’s official name is McGhee Tyson Airport. Greater Cincinnati Airport asked for CIN, but that was taken. Then it asked for GCA, but that meant Ground Control Approach. Finally it was anointed CVG for Greater Covington, which at the time was the largest nearby city. So, yes, an Ohio airport technically is in northern Kentucky.

Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport’s MSY stands for the former Moisant Stock Yards. And Kansas City International is MCI because by the time planners decided not to call their new airport Mid-Continent International, it was too late.

There’s even controversy about the code for Westchester (N.Y.) airport, which is HPN. Some say it represents White Plains. Others claim it’s named for the three towns surrounding the airport – Harrison, Purchase and North Castle.

With so many commercial airports and more than 13,000 codes already assigned to airports with regularly scheduled or charter commercial service, according to the IATA, it’s nearly impossible to change, even if your locator, ahem, sucks. Back in the day, Sioux City didn’t think anything of adding an X to its weather service identifier. Times change, and one day SUX wasn’t the image the Iowa town wanted to project.

Sioux City airport officials first petitioned the IATA in 1988 and then again in 2002 to change its code. A number of alternatives were offered, GWU, GYO, GYT, SGV and GAY. None struck their fancy, and now the city embraces its identifier. It even has a Web site, Which we think is FUN, though Funafuti Atoll in Tuvalu might disagree.