Airport Code Identification?
JFK-John F Kennedy Airport
called by those names although it is not located in the city?
- CARLOS OLv 71 decade agoFavorite Answer
Airport ABCs: An Explanation of Airport Identifier Codes
This article was published in the journal of the Air Line Pilots Association, Air Line Pilot, in December of 1994. I wrote it, but ALPA holds the copyright and reserves all rights other then you reading it directly on this Internet page. The online version is kept updated and revised. However please feel free to share this page with friends using Facebook, or any of the other services listed.
From ABE (Allentown/Bethlehem/Easton, Pennsylvania) to ZRH (Zurich, Switzerland), airports around the world are universally known by a unique three-letter code: the "International Air Transport Association (IATA) Location Identifier" in aviation-speak. It's obviously much easier for pilots, controllers, travel agents, frequent flyers, computers and baggage handlers to say and write ORD than the O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Illinois—but how did this practice start, and why are some airport codes easy to understand (ABE and ZRH) while others seem to make absolutely no sense (ORD)?
When the Wright brothers first took to the air in 1903, there was no need for coding airports since an airport was literally any convenient field with a strong wind. However, the National Weather Service did tabulate data from cities around the country using a two-letter identification system. Early airlines simply copied this system, but as airline service exploded in the 1930's, towns without weather station codes needed identification. Some bureaucrat had a brainstorm and the three-letter system was born, giving a seemingly endless 17,576 different combinations. To ease the transition, existing airports placed an X after the weather station code. The Los Angeles tag became LAX, Portland became PDX, Phoenix became PHX and so on. Incidentally at the historic sand dune in Kitty Hawk where the first flight occurred the U.S. National Parks Service maintains a tiny airstrip called FFA—First Flight Airport.
Many station codes are simply the first three letters of the city name: ATL is Atlanta, BOS is Boston, MIA is Miami, SIN is Singapore, and SYD is Sydney, Australia. The first letter(s) of multiple cities served forms other codes: DFW for Dallas Fort Worth, MSP for Minneapolis/St. Paul, and GSP for Greenville/Spartanburg, South Carolina. Sometimes the city name lends itself to one letter for each word, such as Salt Lake City (SLC), Port of Spain in Trinidad & Tobago (POS), or even Port au Prince, Haiti (PAP).
Most of the "hard to decipher" identifiers become obvious if one knows the name of the airport rather than the city served. A Louisiana example is ESF, for Esler Field in Alexandra. Orly airport (ORY) and Charles De Gaulle airport (CDG) serve Paris, France, while Tokyo, Japan has the Narita airport (NRT). When you know what the code represents, some curious acronyms become obvious: MSY is the former Moisant Stock Yards in New Orleans, CMH is Columbus Municipal Hangar, BWI is Baltimore Washington International, LGW is London Gatwick, and LHR is London Heathrow!
This system of identifying airports caught on quickly and soon expanded to include all radio navigation aids used by pilots. The VOR on the field at ORD sends out the Morse code for ORD. Recently some VORs not located at the airport of the same name changed identifiers to prevent possible confusion. The clearance "cross 10 miles south of Chattanooga" was confusing when the airport and VOR were five miles apart. FAA surprisingly didn't try to change the name of the city but changed the VOR, resulting in the Chattanooga Airport (CHA) and the Choo Choo VOR (GCO)!
All localizer identifiers are prefaced with an "I." Compass locators are assigned a two-letter identifier, normally using the localizer as a base. For example, at ABC the localizer might be IABC, the locator outer marker, AB, and the locator inner marker, BC. (Note, outside the US radio navigation aid naming may be much less formal.)
Some special interest groups successfully lobbied the government to obtain their own special letters. The Navy saved all the new 'N' codes. Naval aviators learn to fly at NPA in Pensacola, Florida and then dream of going to "Top Gun" in Miramar, California (NKX). The Federal Communications Committee set aside the 'W' and 'K' codes for radio stations east and west of the Mississippi respectively. 'Q' was designated for international telecommunications. 'Z' was reserved for special uses. The Canadians made off with all the remaining 'Y codes which helps explain YUL for Montreal, YYC for Calgary, etc. (The start of the the song YYZ by the band Rush is the Morse code for the letters Y Y Z. Rush is from Toronto.) One of the special uses for 'Z' is identifying locations in cyberspace. What am I talking about? Well, an example is ZCX the computer address of the FAA's air traffic
- 1 decade ago
They're listed like that as an international standard under the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).Source(s): My job.
- Anonymous4 years ago
The first letter in the four-letter identifier is the country code. USA (for some unknown reason) is K. The other three letters are the same, so LAX would be KLAX, or SFO would be KSFO