How Exactly do Airports get their Codes?

If you’ve ever flown into an airport and wondered how in the world you managed to go from SDF to ORD (that’s Louisville to Chicago) and instead not from LOU to CHI, you’re not alone. The mystery of some airports’ codes goes back decades and often has nothing to do with the actual city, the airport, or the area itself.

Some airports like SEA (Seattle), MIA (Miami), RDU (Raleigh Durham), and DEN (Denver) are obvious… but what about airports that you might not know, like GEG (Spokane), MSY (New Orleans), BNA (Nashville)? How did they get their funky codes?

One of my favorite websites on the internet is Airport Codes, a self funded, self-sourced list of all the airports they can scrounge up, and how they got their names. If you’re stuck inside and want a good read, you could spend hours here checking out all of the strange, unique, and frankly inappropriate airport codes that exist.

Many of the descriptions come from the website themselves, to whom I am eternally grateful for their dedication and hard work, and hours of entertainment for me!

Here’s a few of the ones in the USA, and a couple abroad, that will have you wondering “how in the world…?”

Nashville – BNA

Nashville International was originally named after Colonel Harry S. Berry. Codes with first letter ‘N’ were reserved for the U.S. Navy, so it used Berry Field NAshville to get BNA.

Fresno, California – FAT

Located about 60 miles south of its namesake national park, Fresno Yosemite International Airport was renamed in 1947 from Fresno Air Terminal. 

Spokane, WA – GEG

This one threw me for a loop. Before being renamed in 1960, Spokane International was known as GEiGer Field, honoring U.S. Army aviator, Major Harold Geiger. Count your blessings that you didn’t have to come up with that one. Get it? Geiger? Count? #DadJokes

New Orleans, LA – MSY

In 2001, the airport was named after jazz legend Louis Armstrong, but was previously called Moisant Field, after aviator John Moisant. Its airport code came from the nearby Moisant Stock Yards. Also, you could just say it stood for misery, because when I think of New Orleans in the summer heat, it’s miserable.

Maui, HI – OGG

Kahului Airport is named after its home city, but its airport code honors Hawaiian-born pilot Bertram J. HOGG.

Chicago, IL – ORD

Before the airport was renamed after Medal of Honor recipient Edward O’Hare in 1949, it was known as ORcharD Field Airport. Not to be confused with the other Chicago airport, Midway (MDW) which makes more sense!

Louisville, KY – SDF

Before being renamed in 1995, Louisville International was known as StanDiFord Field, honoring former state senator Elisha David Standiford.

Sioux City, IA – SUX

SioUX City petitioned twice to have its airport code SUX changed. With no great alternatives, they stuck with it and now use the slogan “Fly SUX.”

Some International Gems

The naming fun isn’t just limited to the USofA, there are plenty of international unique airports as well. You have probably flown into a couple of these before.

Buenos Aires, Argentina – EZE

Named after former Minister of Public Works, Juan Pistarini, the Buenos Aires airport’s code comes from EZEiza Partido where the airport is located. No one really calls it Buenos Aires, but refers to it as Ezeiza, since the other airport, the City airport is AEP, AEroParque.

Obelisk, from Buenos Aires Tourism

Obelisk, from Buenos Aires Tourism

Perm, Russia – PEE

Located in the village of Bolshoye Savino, Perm International gets its airport code from an alternate English spelling of Perm, PErEm.

Quito, Ecuador – UIO

Mariscal Sucre International is named after Antonio José de Sucre who fought for the independence of Quito, in what is now Ecuador. Because the FCC reserved codes starting with ‘Q’, it opted for other letters from its home city of QUItO.

Aeroflot interior, from businessdestinations.com

Moscow, Russia – SVO

Opened in 1959, SheremetyeVO International is located in the city of Khimki, but was named after the nearby village of Sheremetyevsky.

Rio de Janiero, Brazil – GIG

Formerly known as Galeão Air Force Base, Galeão International was created in 1941 on Governador Island’s Galeão Beach in Rio de Janeiro.

Guanabara Bay, from Wallpaperweb.org

Sembach, Germany – SEX

Sembach Kaserne is a United States Army installation in Sembach, Germany. Its airport code comes from its former name as SEmbach AnneX.

Berlin, Germany – TXL

Many airports use the letter ‘X’ to fill in when the desired letters are already taken. This Berlin airport get its code from its home in the borough of TegeL plus that helpful ‘X’. Although, we don’t expect this one to be open for too much longer.

Paris, France – CDG

Renamed and officially opened in 1974, France’s largest airport is named after Charles De Gaulle, former President and founder of the French Fifth Republic.

Paris from above

Rome, Italy – FCO

Rome’s international airport honors the original Renaissance man, Leonardo da Vinci. It is often referred to as just FiumiCinO Airport, explaining its airport code of FCO.

I know I’ve left a lot off the list – hit us in the comments with your favorites, or your most obscure!

Author: Jon Nickel-D'Andrea

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4 Comments

  1. I have a quiz for you, Jon:

    What founder of BoardingArea calls the city whose airport code is SUX the hometown from which he originates?

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  2. I like XRY because it’s like “x-ray”, and YQX because it’s “Canada”+fillers.

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  3. There are two that I find charming because they stand for a former name of the city, not of the airfield. Saigon was renamed to Ho Chi Minh City when South Vietnam fell in 1975, but its airport, Tan Son Nhat International Airport, remains SGN. Similarly, Leningrad was renamed (back) to St. Petersburg in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but its airport, Pulkovo International Airport, remains LGD.

    Are there other similar cases?

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  4. Regarding BNA. There are no colonels in the U. S. Navy.

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