Curious what those 3 letter airport codes mean? JFK, MSP, YAK, SNA, ORD. Gibberish? No, they have a purpose and a meaning. In this article we are talking 3 letter airport codes and all will be revealed including what are they, how are they used and where they came from. Plus we share some funny ones and I give you a list of all the ones I’ve been to.
What are 3 Letter Airport Codes & How are they used?
Let’s start with the basics. Every airport has a 3 letter identifying code known as an IATA code.
In case you didn’t know, IATA stands for the International Air Transit Association. IATA is an international independent association focused primarily on aviation safety, but also the simplification of the airline business, airline security, and as of late, the environment.
This consortium of airline industry companies helps create standards and policies that would be beneficial for the broader industry.
They also are the entity responsible for all of those airport codes and publish a directory known as the Airline Coding Directory that contains all of the airport codes presently in service.
History of 3 Letter Airport Codes
Airport Codes were born out of convenience as pilots and airline staff tried to keep track of the many airports popping up. By implementing a unified, simple and easy to remember system, airline, pilots and even passengers could quickly know what location the airport code referred to.
Needing something simple, memorable and that could easily fit into computer systems was important. Apparently, 2 letter airport codes were used first, but this was largely unmanageable.
Thus 3 letter airport codes were implemented allowing (mathematically) for over 17,000 different configurations (or airports).
The rest was was history.
The travel industry writ began to use these beyond just pilots. Soon baggage handling systems, boarding passes and more began to leverage these 3 letter airport codes to simply conduct daily business.
Note: Savvy business travelers will have many of these memorized and will smugly test their fellow travelers or post the airport code on Facebook informing their network of what glamorous locale they are visiting that week (I can neither confirm or deny I’ve done this…haha).
How are Airport Codes chosen?
It’s funny right? Some airport codes totally make sense. Like BOS for Boston. Ok, we totally get that. Or ONT for Ontario, CA and DFW for Dallas Fort Worth Airport.
But what about ORD for O’Hare? Or Los Angeles’ LAX? Orange County’s SNA? Yikes! How are those airport codes chosen?
Well, IATA’s preference is that the code reflect the first three letters of the cities name (hence BOS = Boston). But, you have to remember it was kind of the wild west back in the early days of aviation. Airports popped up and went away. Airlines came and went. The aviation industry was still in quite a bit of flux at the time.
For example, John Wayne Airport, in Orange County used to be named Orange County Airport. However, it’s code is SNA. What gives? Well, the airport was situated in sort of a no-mans land long ago and the town of Santa Ana was the best town to be affiliated with the airport. So, SNA comes from Santa Ana.
ORD in Chicago? ORD used to be called Old Orchard Airport, hence the IATA Code ORD. Then you have places like MCO in Orlando that came from the name of the old airbase McCoy Airbase. Or IAD, which is Dulles International Airport – what what? Yeah, they codes are transposed due to confusion with nearby Ronald Reagan Airport, or DCA.
BNA? The original Nashville airport was called Berry Field, but later when a brand new airport replaced it, BNA stuck.
Why do some airports have X’s in their airport codes?
Early on there were many airports that only had two letter codes. Places like Los Angeles, Portland and Phoenix. Adding an X to the end of the code allowed them to be compliant with the IATA nomenclature and we forever now know these airports at LAX, PDX and PHX (although PHX kinda worked out didn’t it…lol).
Here’s a link to a full list of Airport Codes: https://airportcod.es/
Funny Airport Codes & Interesting Airport Codes
With 17,000 or so permutations, not to mention the variety of city names, there’s bound to be some funny or interesting 3 letter airport codes. Here’s a few gems:
- BAD – Barksdale Airforce Base
- BUD – Budapest Airport, not 420 airport.
- CIA – Ciampino, Italy. Who doesn’t want to have their boarding pass read CIA.
- DOH – Doha, Qatar. Easy, Homer.
- FAT – Fresno, CA airport. Fresno is not Phat.
- GUM – Antonio B. Won Pat International Airport in Guam.
- GTF – Great Falls International Airport. Just missing one letter there to make this really fun.
- HEL – Helsinki, Finland. Where are you flying? To hell!?!
- LFT – Lafayette Regional Airport, LA. Liberals have their own airport.
- MRY – Monterey Regional Airport, CA. Also a great place to get married.
- OGG – Kahului Airport, HI. The Original Gangster Airport.
- SUX – Sioux City, IA. They embrace it! Embrace the suck.
- USA – Concord Regional Airport, NC
- EAT – Pangborn Memorial Airport, Wenatchee, WA. I got nothing.
- PEE – Bolshoye Savino Airport in Russia. LOL
- PLN – Pellston Regional Airport of Emmet County, MI. Do you plan to visit PLN?
- PGA – Page Municipal Airport. A town in northern Arizona not a golf course.
- POO – Poco De Caldas Airport in Brazil. Poor guys.
- RAP – Rapid City Regional Airport, SD. RAP and OGG are good buddies.
- ROW – Roswell International Air Center, NM. Don’t get in a row over your trip to see Aliens
- SMF – Sacramento, CA. It’s so much fun to visit Sac town.
- FOE – Topeka Regional Airport, KS. They are not the enemy.
- ACT – Waco, TX. It’s time to act on your plans to visit Wacky Waco!
- YAK – Yakutat Airport, Alaska. There are no yak’s unfortunately. Just moose.
- YUM – Yuma International Airport, Unfortunately Yuma, AZ is anything but yum.
Airport Codes I wish existed
- FRT – Fargo Regional Township Airport.
- BUT – Butte City airport
Other interesting facts about 3 Letter Airport Codes
- No two airports can be only 1 IATA code letter different within 2 miles
- The United States Navy “owns” (for lack of a better word) the letter N and the FCC has reserved W and K. Cities that start with these letters have to use a different code. This is why places like Newark Airport have the bizarre 3 letter airport code: EWR.
- Not all airports need to have codes, but if you want to route luggage or commercial flights through international booking systems – it’s not happening.
Airport Code Art, Gifts and Merch
There are some cool things people have done with airport codes and they make cool gifts (via affiliate links). Check it…
- Airport Code on a Hat? Why not!
- Framed Airport Code Wall Art
- Airport Code Poster
- Airport Code on a Bottle Opener? Yes please.
- Vintage Airport Code Wall Art. #Hipster
- How about a vintage luggage tag coaster? Don’t even ask. Just bring it.
- Display your favorite airport code on a TShirt because why not.
The Airports and Airport Codes I’ve been to!
So, here’s an ever growing list of Airport Codes that I personally have been to over the years – not inclusive – with a occasional commentary about the AP, or the visit to the area. My fav’s are highlighted in blue.
- ABQ: Albuquerque, NM. An odd airport, but smooth sailing at security and some of the most unique southwestern architecture/decor you will find.
- ATL: Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Busiest airport in the US. Big Delta hub!
- AUS: Austin–Bergstrom International Airport. Who is Bergstrom anyway? Live music is a plus.
- BDL: Bradley International Airport, Hartford, CT. Southwest flies here. Sweet.
- BIS: Bismarck Airport, ND. Cuz that’s what I do…biz. Minot’s AP was WAY nicer.
- BNA: Nashville, TN. Dumb airport code. Old Airport. Lots of famous people. Check out my humorous take on the BNA Airport here.
- BOI: Boise Airport, ID. I dig this town, but I can’t remember the AP.
- BUF: Buffalo Niagara International Airport, NY.
- BWI: Baltimore–Washington International Airport, Baltimore, MD. Sometimes cheaper access to DC w/ a little extra commute time.
- CHA: Chattanooga Airport, TN. Don’t remember the AP, but I do remember by Delta flight getting struck by lightening on the way over from ATL.
- CLE: Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. What else needs to be said.
- CLT: Charlotte, NC. Nothing remarkable here, IMO
- CMH: John Glenn Columbus International Airport, Columbus, OH. Birthplace of my wife. Cool city, IMO.
- CVG: Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport. An old Northwest hub. Kinda a crappy airport.
- DFW: Dallas Forth Worth Airport, Dallas, TX
- DAL: Dallas Love Airport, Dallas, TX
- DCA: Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. 1 of 3 APs near DC. Can you spot the politician??
- DEN: Denver International Airport, Denver, CO. Good Mexican Breakfast joint on 2nd level. Weird AP though, if you ask me. Also..WAY too far away from the actual city of Denver.
- DSM: Des Moines International Airport, IA. Where my father’s family hails from. The AP does not stand out in any way to me.
- DTW: Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Crazy tunnel connecting commuter terminal. Not a bad airport actually. But I’ve been stranded there. Detroit kinda sucks.
- EUG: Eugene Airport, OR. Weird town.
- EWR: Newark Liberty International Airport, Newark, NJ. I always forget this one!
- EVV: Evansville Regional Airport. Tiny little guy. Spent a night in a crappy “resort” in Owensboro, KY which is nearby.
- FLL: Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Only been here for pleasure. Cruise. But as you would expect of any FL airport…it’s horrible.
- HOU: William P. Hobby Airport. Silly name. I once was in Dallas Love, but thought I was in Hobby. Hotel Shuttle was not enthused about picking me up.
- IAD: Washington Dulles International Airport. The 2nd of 3 APs near DC. (BWI is the 3rd)
- IAH: George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, TX
- ICT: Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport, KS. I never remember this code, but I also don’t travel here often. Last time I landed there was a huge banner that said: “Welcome to the Bible Belt” and it was apparently hunting season as group after group were picking up their rifles from baggage claim.
- IND: Indianapolis International Airport. The AP is nothing to get excited about, but I do love Indy. Also, the coldest I’ve ever been in my life is Indy in the middle of the winter. Now I understand why they have all of those covered pedestrian bridges connecting the buildings.
- ITO: Hilo International Airport, HI. Cool little tiny AP. Outdoor terminals as you might expect.
- JAX: Jacksonville International Airport, FL. Cool airport code name. As FL airports go (and I hate them), this is not too bad really.
- JFK: John F. Kennedy Airport, New York City, NY. I like this AP. Spent a LOT of time here.
- IGM: Kingman Regional Airport, Kingman, AZ. This is actually my hometown. It’s kind of a sucky town, honestly. The AP is horrible too, but I did fly a United flight from there down to PHX for a Marine Corps exam once. I don’t think they fly out of this AP anymore. Or at least not any passenger airlines.
- LAN: Capital Region International Airport, Lansing, MI
- LAS: McCarran International Airport, Las Vegas, NV. Home of the 2.5 hour layover.
- LAX: Los Angeles International Airport, Los Angeles, CA
- LGA: La Guardia Airport, New York City, NY
- LGB: Long Beach Airport. I think the only airline that flies out of there is JetBlue.
- MAN: Manchester–Boston Regional Airport. Really stretching the “Boston” thing a bit, but I get it. Airport was uninspiring.
- MCI: Kansas City International Airport. Not a fan. Also…what does MCI have to do w/ anything. On the plus side, KC has good BBQ.
- MIA: Miami International Airport. FL Airports suck.
- MOB: Mobile Regional Airport, AL. Kinda a pretty AP.
- MRY: Monterey Regional Airport. Two words: Pebble Beach.
- MSP: Minneapolis–Saint Paul International Airport. Not really a big fan of this airport. Big, old, spread out.
- MSN: Dane County Regional Airport, Madison, WI.
- MSY: Louis Armstrong Airport, New Orleans, LA
- MAF: Midland International Air and Space Port, TX. Yeah…a freakin Space Port! Middle of nowhere TX though.
- MCO: Orlando, FL. I hate all FL airports. Just saying. Actually, I hate Florida in general.
- MDT: Harrisburg International Airport, PA. Pretty nice AP really.
- MDW: Midway Airport, Chicago, IL. Speaking of Midway, check out my nutty travel horror story where we lost an engine and flew from MDW to ORD. Yikes!
- MEM: Memphis International Airport
- MOT: Minot, ND. Really nice airport actually. Did not expect that. Oil $$ has been good to Minot Airport.
- OAK: Oakland International Airport. Pretty nice airport really. Terrible town.
- OKC: Will Rogers World Airport, Oklahoma City, OK. Cool AP. Suprisingly great city w/ great people. I like this place. #Notashamed.
- OMA: Eppley Airfield, Omaha, NE. I am huge Cornhusker fan, but I can’t remember anything about this airport.
- ONT: Ontario International Airport, Ontario, CA. My home AP. Also…where the heck is Ontario, CA? Think east of LA on the way to Palm Springs. Great little AP now that LAX doesn’t own them anymore. There is actually a flight from LAX to ONT. I’ve done it. 12 minutes. And if it gets delayed, they just bus you over. Seriously. Once I just took a cab.
- ORD: O’Hare International Airport, Chicago, IL
- PBI: Palm Beach International Airport, FL. As FL APs go, not the worst.
- PDX: Portland International Airport, Portland, OR. I like this airport and it’s 3 letter code. Speaking of Oregon, you might want to check out my post on what to do in Salem, Oregon or enjoy the crazy story about the birth of my 4th child while I was on business in Eugene, Oregon (it involves running out of gas, running through traffic in dress clothes, and Alaska Airlines).
- PHX: Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. A tired old airport. Ugly monstrosity, IMO. Good tacos in the C terminal though!
- PHL: Philadelphia International Airport. There’s a rule. You can fly TO and FROM PHL. But never through. YOU WILL GET DELAYED.
- PIT: Pittsburgh International Airport, PA. Not really that great an AP, but I kinda love it. I love the city and spent a lot of time in a cool job in / around Western PA. Great food (they put fries on salad…#levelup).
- PNS: Pensacola International Airport. Uh…insert joke here. Also, Blue Angels.
- PVD: T. F. Green Airport, Providence, RI. Protip hack: PVD can sometimes be a better way to get into Boston area.
- PWM: Not Portland Oregon. Instead, Portland, ME.
- RDU: Raleigh–Durham International Airport. Rolls off the tongue…R…D…U.
- RNO: Reno Tahoe International. Tahoe is awesome. Reno sucks.
- ROC: Greater Rochester International Airport, Rochester, NY. Cool stained glass window.
- SAN: San Diego, CA. There is no other feeling better in the world than when you exit SAN and that cool San Diego weather hits you. No matter where you were in the world that week, it wasn’t San Diego.
- SAF: Santa Fe, NM. Tiny little guy. Flew a 2 row prop plane w/ no flight attendant and no security door from Denver to here in bad weather. It was a hairy flight.
- SAT: San Antonio International Airport. Suitcase art. Nuff said.
- SCE: University Park Airport, State College, PA. Spent a lot of time in this tiny little AP.
- SDF: Louisville International Airport. Only been here once. And I can’t for the life of me understand why SDF has anything to do w/ Louisville
- SEA: Seattle–Tacoma International Airport, or SEATAC, WA
- SFO: San Francisco, CA. Cool city. Lot of weirdos live here though.
- SJC: Norman Y. Mineta San José International Airport. Cool airport! Silicon Valley. Can you spot the millionaire?
- SLC: Salt Lake City, UT
- SMF: Sacramento International Airport, CA. I like this AP and I like this town. Spent a lot of time here. Only gripe is rental car facility is off airport.
- SNA: Orange County, CA Airport or John Wayne Airport as the locals call it.
- SPI: Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport, Springfield, IL. Great name for an AP. Seriously.
- STL: St. Louis Lambert International Airport. Poorly designed. Hassle to get to the rental car facility. NOT IMPRESSED.
- SYR: Syracuse Hancock International Airport, NY
- TLH: Tallahassee International Airport, FL. It’s Tallahassee. Nothing more needs to be said.
- TLV: Ben Gurion International, Israel. Or…the Natbag.
- TPA: Tampa International Airport. FL Airports suck. Just saying. TPA is no exception.
- TUS: Tucson International Airport, Tucson, AZ. Cool town, IMO. Airport is not bad. Shared w/ a military base. Security is easy peasy.
- YOW: Ottawa International Airport. You gotta love this IATA code. Yow baby!
I will keep adding to this list…I did a quick check and w/ the exception of Honolulu AP I’ve been to every single one of the 30 largest airports in the US, and numerous other regional or smaller ones. 89 so far, but that feels light. I will keep adding ’em.
How about you? Do you have some favorite airport codes? Join the conversation and share your favorite airports and of course their 3 letter airport code. Don’t forget to check out my list of airports that I’ve yet to hit, below:
Here’s a few airports I’ve YET to fly in/out/through.
Think of it as my Airport bucket list (or airport codes bucket list). LOL…so sad.
- ANC: Ted Stevens Anchorage International, AK. Never been here either.
- BIL: Billings Logan International Airport, Billings, MT. One of the few states I’ve never been to.
- BUR: Hollywood Burbank Airport, aka Bob Hope Airport. Cool dude, cool name.
- CLD: McClellan–Palomar Airport. Carlsbad, CA. Also known as heaven.
- GEG: Spokane International Airport, Spokane, WA. With a code like GEG…come on!
- HNL: Daniel K. Inouye International Airport, HI. I’ve been to the Big Island (), but never HNL.
- LHR: London Heathrow Airport, London, England
- PSP: Palm Springs International Airport. Sonny Bono concourse!?! I live like 2 hours from here. You’d have thought I’d tried it 1x.
- SGU: St. George Regional Airport, UT.
- MKE: Milwaukee (or General Mitchell). Never been here.
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