JFK, LAX, ORD: How Do Airports Get Their Codes?

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Airport codes seem to fall under two categories: those that make sense and the rest are confusing or obscure.

It’s finally time. You’ve been planning for this trip to New Orleans for a few months now: Bags packed? Check. Itinerary set? Check. Travel squad ready? Check. Boarding pass? Che-wait…why does it say MSY for New Orleans International Airport instead of NOL, or even NOA?

Welcome to the mysterious world of airport codes, where even the most meticulous planners will doubt themselves.

These airport codes seem to fall under two categories (according to me): the ones that make sense and analogous to the airport, like New York’s John F Kennedy International, appropriately labeled as JFK, or Texas’ William P. Hobby Airport is labeled HOU because its city is Houston, or London Heathrow is LHR. Then we have those that are so obscure, you’d have to actually want to do research to in order to find out more. Well, you’re in luck, because we did the research so you wouldn’t have to!

Humble Beginnings to Transatlantic Travel: A Brief History of Airport Codes

Picture yourself in a lively and prosperous 1930s Havana, Cuba: funky bars and avant-garde cafes were brimming with artists, poets and musicians. People were flocking to this slice of paradise, with the likes of literati such as Ernest Hemingway. Post-prohibition era Americans found solace in the cornucopia of pleasures and escape from the economic depression.

The increasing momentum of travel enthusiasts wasn’t anticipated.

Business opportunities were booming and air travel increasingly became popular. The humble International Air Transport Association (IATA) formed in Havana circa 1945 and haphazardly developed these location identifiers in order to accommodate the 57 airlines (from 31 countries) under its wing at the time.

The increasing momentum of travel enthusiasts wasn’t anticipated. Thus, airports in North America were initially assigned two-letter codes based on the weather station or radio transmitter of where the strip was located. Once the explosion of demand for air travel led to more airports in different countries, IATA assigned three-letter codes we recognize on luggage tags and boarding tickets.

X Marks the Spot

You’ve probably noticed that some airport codes have an ‘X” attached to it. There’s Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), Portland International Airport (PDX) or Dubai International Airport (DXB). Since airport codes were initially two letters, an “X” was added when there was a need for more identifiers. Dubai International Airport could have been DUB, but that was already assigned to Dublin Airport.

The Weird, Wacky and Somewhat Inappropriate

There are some airport codes that seem unrelated and nonsensical with the designated airport. This could be due to multiple reasons: the airport changed its name in recent years but still kept their original identifier, the airport was assigned a code that wasn’t already taken, or the spelling of an international airport was adjusted and the new code was based on the adjusted name. Here’s a roundup of a few airports with codes that’ll give you that “aha” moment once you know its background.

Before the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport (MSY) was renamed, it was initially called Moisant Fields, named after aviator John Moisant. Moisant Fields was assigned the code MSY, derived from the nearby Moisant Stock Yards. Though it would make sense to be assigned NOL instead of MSY, this code is already in use by Poland’s Nakolik River Airport.

Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) was named after a now-defunct community called Orchard Place. In the 1940s, it became the site of a military (and later, commercial) airport called Orchard Field and then was renamed after Medal of Honor recipient and WWII ace Edward Butch O’Hare.

Before Orlando International Airport (MCO) was the gateway to theme parks and sunshine, it was called McCoy Air Force Base. Though the name changed, the location identifier stayed the same.

And just for kicks, we’ve rounded up a few of the wacky ones:

India’s Cochin International Airport (COK) decided to reverse the first three letters of its city name, Kochi, as their identifier and well…now they’re stuck with it.

Be sure to get your SUX merch from Sioux City. After they tried relentlessly to get their IATA code changed to no avail, they finally gave in and embraced it.

India’s Cochin International Airport (COK) tried their best. They decided to reverse the first three letters of its city name, Kochi, as their identifier and well…now they’re stuck with it.

Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT) gets its code from its former name, Fresno Air Terminal. And another unfortunately assigned is Perm International (PEE). PEE got its identifier from an alternative English spelling of Perm, Russia, which is Perem.

There you have it! We didn’t get into four-letter location identifiers used by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAU) or Canada’s unusual system where all of the nation’s airport codes begin with the letter Y. Without airport codes, there would be more cases of travelers accidentally on a flight to Sydney, Nova Scotia instead of Sydney, Australia!