Have you ever wondered how Newark Liberty International Airport got the airport code “EWR?” Or why Chicago O’Hare International Airport is called “ORD?” It may seem like these letters (also called “International Air Transport Association Location Identifiers”) are completely random, but there’s a reason for each code.
Here are seven things that can determine an airport’s code name:
One of the simplest ways an airport gets its code is based on the actual name of the airport. For example, John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, New York has the code “JFK” while Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut has the code “BDL.”
Many airports get their airport codes from their location, which is why Boston Logan International Airport is coded “BOS” and Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport is coded “DFW.” However, some airports service a major area but are actually located in a smaller town or city. For example, Harrisburg International Airport is located in Middletown, Pennsylvania, so it has the code “MDT.”
Some airport codes seem to have random letters thrown in, but many times, these letters denote the county that the airport is located in. That’s why East Texas Regional Airport in Longview, Texas is named “GGG,” after Gregg County and Detroit Metro Airport has a “W” (“DTW”) for Wayne County.
The Navy actually reserved the letter “N” for use in all of its own airports, which is why Norfolk International Airport in Virginia is called “ORF” and Newark Liberty International Airport is “EWR.” Similarly, the letters “K” and “W” are reserved for radio stations, which is why Key West International Airport becomes “EYW” and Wilmington International Airport becomes “ILM.” In addition, you’ll only find “Y”-coded airports in Canada and “Q” is reserved for international telecommunications.
There are several airports that have been named after historical figures, so their airport codes incorporate these figures’ names. For example, the Tyson family donated the land that Mcghee Tyson Airport sits on in Knoxville, Tennessee, so its code is “TYS.” Spokane International Airport in Spokane, Washington is called “GEG” in honor of Army Major Harold C. Geiger, and Nashville International Airport in Tennessee is labeled “BNA” after Colonel Harry Berry, who helped found it.
Some airports located in major cities decided to simply add an “X” to the end of their city’s weather code and make that their airport code. For example, Portland International Airport is “PDX” and Los Angeles International Airport is “LAX.”
Nearby Airport Codes
Sometimes, you’ll see airport codes that seem to have a reversed order of letters or **. This may be because a nearby airport has a similar code. Because it’s easy to mix up two similar codes, there is a rule that says “the first and second letters or second and third letters of an identifier may not be duplicated with less than 200 nautical miles separation.” This is why Virginia’s Washington Dulles International Airport (originally labeled “DIA”) was changed to “IAD,” since it’s close to Washington D.C.’s “DCA” airport.