From 17,678 commercial airports worldwide on roughly 100,000 scheduled flights, about 6,000,000 passengers travel somewhere every day. Every day.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), an airline trade association based in Montreal, Canada, assigns an airport code to each airport. Some airports, like LAX or JFK are known colloquially by these initials. The IATA codes are an integral part of the travel industry, its electronic applications, and essential for the identification of an airline, its destinations, its cargo, and travel documentation.
Airport coding first began in the 1930s, and airlines typically chose their own two-letter codes. This order only allowed for a few hundred letter combinations. By the late 1940s, as the number of airports grew, the system shifted to the three-letter code we know today. Several U.S. airports simply added an ‘X’ to their old code. The ‘X’ is a placeholder and has no meaning outside of this use. Los Angeles International Airport, for instance, was originally LA but became LAX in 1947. Other examples include Portland International Airport (PDX) and Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA).
The three-letter system allows for 17,576 permutations. To avoid running out of codes, only major airports use three initials and smaller airports often incorporate numbers, such as Osage City, KS (53K), and Cle Elum, WA (S93).
Some airport codes are easy to decipher. Miami International Airport is MIA; Athens International Airport is ATH. Other codes are a bit more difficult. Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport is MSY, an industry nod to pioneering aviator, John Moisant. Chicago O’Hare International Airport was assigned ORD, as it sits on what was previously known as Orchard Field.
Nav.com offers complete FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) airport details that include management, conditions, and ownership. For example, click here for everything you need to know as a pilot for Cle Elum (S93), a single public runway in rural Washington State.
With just three letters, it was inevitable that some codes would be… well, memorable.
- LOL – Derby Field Airport in Nevada
- OMG – Omega Airport in Namibia
- PEE – Russia’s Bolshoye Savino Airport
- POO – Brazil’s Poco De Caldas Airport.
- BAD – Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana
- GAG – Gage Airport in Oklahoma
- DIE – Arrachart Airport in Madagascar
- SUX – Sioux City, Iowa Gateway Airport
Sioux City has embraced its unfortunate assignation by partnering with a local retailer to offer a popular line of travel souvenirs with the slogan ‘Fly SUX!’ – turning a lemon into lemonade.
You might also be interested in reading about the explosion in the use of acronyms, who regulates the spelling of place names, or why the U.S. doesn’t have an official language!
Go to the previous or next Fun Facts About English.
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