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From AAA to ZZV: All About Airport Codes

January 14th, 2010

airport-codes.jpgIf you fly regularly, you have probably noticed it on your ticket, itinerary, or luggage tag – that often mysterious three letter code that indicates your destination airport. Some codes are so familiar that they have almost replaced the airport name and are in common usage, such as SFO (San Francisco), LAX (Los Angeles) and JFK (John F Kennedy, New York) Others are more obscure – AAA is Anaa airport in French Polynesia; ZZV is the code for Zanesville in Ohio. The codes are used not only by airport staff, but by pilots, controllers, travel agents, and others who work in aviation and travel. Many employees are expected to memorize hundreds of the more widely used airport codes.

Airline codes date back to the 1930s when it was realized that the rapid growth of air travel meant that a system had to be devised that would identify airstrips and airports. It was calculated that by using just three letters, over 17,000 combinations were possible. Some locations already had a two letter identifier that had been allocated by the National Weather Service and in some cases an X was simply added on – Portland, Oregon became PDX; Phoenix became PHX. And where it all began, there is a tiny airstrip at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, the site of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, which has the code FFA – First Flight Airport.

Many larger airports have codes that are simply the first three letters of their name – MIA (Miami), BOS (Boston) and FRA (Frankfurt). However, some airport codes are seemingly obscure unless you know the story behind them. For example, Orlando’s code of MCO is derived from the name of the Air Force base that was once located there – McCoy Field. Chicago O’Hare has the code of ORD because an aircraft factory known as Orchard Place originally stood there; later this became an airport and the name was changed to Orchard Field. The code allocated to Longview/Kilgore airport in Texas — GGG — seems meaningless, unless you know that the airport is in Gregg County.

However, no codes are as confusing as those for Canadian airports, almost all of which begin with the letter Y – Montreal is YUL, Toronto is YYZ, and Vancouver is YVR. There seems to be some confusion as to why this is, although the truth is probably that most of the more obvious codes had already been taken when the Canadians got around to allocating codes. They also decided that it would be useful to give their codes some consistency and as the letter Y was available, they grabbed it. Likewise, the US Navy decided that the letter N would belong to them – the training base in Pensacola, FL is NPA; the facility in Miramar, CA is NKX.

Whereas some three letter codes are obvious and some are obscure, some are perhaps funny, even embarrassing. If your luggage is tagged with the code BUM, your destination is Butler, MO; if you are going to FAT, you are heading to Fresno, CA; and if you are visiting BOB, you are on your way to Motu Mute airport in the South Pacific. Perhaps no airport is as unfortunate as Sioux City, Iowa that is cursed with the code of SUX. The city has tried to change it over the years to such things as GYO and SGV, but eventually gave up and made the best of it. The airport’s slogan since 2007 — FLY SUX.


This article on airport codes was supplied to us by “Mancunian” from Constant Content.


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