The International Air Transport Association Location Identifier uses a unique three-letter code in order to identify the locations of airports around the world. You may find these codes listed while searching for flights online such as MCO (Orlando) or JFK (New York). These codes are also listed on your baggage tag during check-in at the ticket counter.
In the 1930’s, airport codes came along since they helped pilots identify the various airports. Pilots were originally using a two-letter code that the National Weather Service uses to identify cities. Some cities didn’t have a National Weather Service code, so the three-letter airport codes were established. A three-letter code allows for over 17,576 different letter variations.
Typically, airport codes are named after the first three letters of the city in which it stands for. For example, MEX represents Mexico City, SAN stands for San Diego, and DUS is for Dusseldorf. Some airports have the same letters within the airport code such as the following: FLL stands for Fort Lauderdale, EWR for Newark, and VCE for Venice. Within the United States, many airports used their old National Weather service code and simply added an “X” at the end. Some airports with their old National Weather Service codes are PDX for Portland and LAX for Los Angeles.
Oddly enough, many airport codes seem to not make much sense at all. Some airports include a mix of various regions and therefore include different letters. For example, DFW stands for Dallas Fort Worth Texas, BDL represents Hartford Connecticut but the airports name is Bradley International Airport, and MSP stands for Minneapolis Saint Paul. Many airports also have historic names, which coincide with their airport codes. MCO represents Orlando International Airport, but “MCO” is based on the old McCoy Air Force Base. SGN stands for Ho Chi Minh City but the airport code is named after the former Saigon city in Vietnam.
In the 1930’s, Canada also used the two-letter identification method from the weather station. Before the two letter code, a “Y, meaning yes, was placed in order to represent that the weather station was the same as the airport. A “W”, meaning without, would be located before the two-letters to represent that a reporting station was not located with an airport. The letter “U” means that the airport has the same location as the Non-Directional Beacon (NDB). The NDB is a radio transmitter as a specific location often used in aviation and marine navigation. Finally, an “X” was used if the two-letters were already taken by another Canadian airport and a “Z” is used if the airport code may be confused with a three-letter code in the United States. For example, YOW stands for Ottawa, YYC represents Calgary, YYZ is for Toronto, and YVR stands for Vancouver. Interestingly, many airports have initiated a specific branding method so that the name of the airport corresponds to the code. The Calgary airport has used their airport code in place of their official website “yyc.com”.
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