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Those Curious Airport Codes


Article by Lynette Standley

Photography by Lynette Standley + Stock Images

BOI for Boise makes sense, as does MIA for Miami. But ORD for Chicago? And MSY for New Orleans? It’s an interesting bit of history. Back in the 1930s when airplanes were sparse and air travel was uncommon, airports had two-letter codes, typically named after a local airfield, a weather station or local landmark.

 Back then, Los Angeles airport was simply LA, for example.

Air travel gained momentum in the 1940s, and more airports and airlines were added to the mix. Eventually there was potential for duplicate codes, so the International Air Transport Association (IATA) upped it to three letters. And naturally, no two airports in the world can have the same three-letter combo.

(Want a face mask, pillow or tote with your favorite code or travel theme? Check these out.)

In some cases, the airport names were changed, but the codes remained the same: Ronald Reagan National Airport, Washington, D.C. had originally been given DCA; it was the first major airport to serve the D.C. area.  In the 1930s, the Chicago airport was in Orchard Place (OR), but they later added a D for its third letter: Chicago has been ORD ever since. And the airport serving New Orleans was originally built in Moisant Stock Yards, hence MSY. It was later given the official name Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, but the IATA code is still MSY.

Sometimes an X was added if there was already a popular two-letter code, like LAX in Los Angeles and PDX in Portland, Ore.

Of course, this leads to some fun codes around the globe:

  • The airport serving Lovelock, Nevada, is LOL
  • Omega Airport in Namibia is OMG
  • The code for a small town in Alaska is EEK
  • Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana is BAD
  • Bodo International in Norway is BOO
  • Funafuti International Airport in Tuvalu is FUN

And there are sure to be some that make the 9-year-old in you chuckle:

  • SUX (Sioux City, SD)
  • FAT (Fresno-Yosemite International Airport)
  • PEE (Perm, Russia)
  • POO (Poco De Caldas, Brazil)

Like any industry, airports and pilots use their own acronym language. Adding to the three-letter code we discussed, each country has a letter that is added at the front to let pilots know the airport and the country they're visiting.

“All the airport codes in the continental U.S. technically start with a K, but travelers don’t normally see them,” said FedEx Captain Rich Huck. “It’s useful to pilots when reviewing international flight plans so we know which countries we’ll be stopping in.”

He listed a few other examples: Canada is C; China starts with a Z; Australia uses a Y, Germany's an E and Italy is an L. So while flying into Rome from Munich, our boarding passes say MUC–FCO, but a pilot’s flight plan would be EMUC—LFCO.

If you have a favorite airport or code that brings back happy memories, there are great mementos available through sites like Airportag:

And speaking of airports, last year, Fodor’s released a best and worst airport list.

Any guesses on the worst domestic hub? I thought maybe it was Chicago, based on personal experience (they are on the "worst" list.) But due to the poorly designed vehicle-only access in and out of the airport, with no solid public transportation option, LAX in Los Angeles wins the title. Improvements are coming.

The best domestic airport, interestingly, is its neighbor: Hollywood Burbank (BUR). Smaller, affordable parking, easy access—and closer to the sights visitors come for like Beverly Hills, Disneyland, Santa Monica and more. The next top two: Indianapolis International (IND) and Portland International (PDX).

The best international airport is, again, Singapore Changi airport (SIN). World-class shopping, an atrium with walk-through gardens and hedge mazes, international cuisine. People check in early just to enjoy the experience. My husband traveled through there last year and said it was indeed a sight to behold.

Of course, those are from a passenger perspective. Captain Huck looks at two things: flight paths in and out and entertainment during layovers.

“Anchorage (ANC) has a short runway surrounded by mountains, so take-offs and landings there can be exciting,” he said. “Similarly, San Diego’s airport (SAN) has a huge parking garage in the glide path, so we wait until we clear that, and then drop in.”

But for the passenger experience, Huck said the Dubai (DXB) and Singapore airports (below) have world-class shopping and hours of entertainment options.

Someday we will travel again! Keep your eye on the prize, and get ready for it. If you want to visit FCO, VRN, FLR, NAP or BAR, keep Cypress Tours in mind. I can read code—and take you on an unforgettable adventure! LOL