Mystery Solved: Where Do Airport Codes Come From?

Mystery Solved: Where Do Airport Codes Come From?

There's a method behind those three (sometimes mysterious) letters.

By Karen Gardiner

Like OMG, FUK and SUX, we already told you that some wacky airport codes are great for a giggle. But let's take a step back: How does an airport come to being known as PEE or POO, anyway? Some airport codes just make logical sense — MAD, for example, seems a reasonable abbreviation for Madrid — but a few others have us scratching our heads. Such as, why would Arrachart, Madagascar willingly allow its airport be referred to by an acronym so chilling as DIE?

In DIE's case, the explanation is quite simple. It was named, during French colonial rule, after the nearby city of Antsiranana, which was then called Diego Suárez (first three letters: DIE).

It turns out that there is usually a fairly simple explanation behind the codes, many of which are explained on the simple but pleasing site Airport Codes, which gives the rundown on the meaning behind, mostly American, IATA-designated airport codes.

Airports such as LAX and PHX didn't just randomly throw an "X" at the end of their city's first two letters — its just that they were named prior to the 1930s when airports only had two-letter codes. The X was added in order to adhere to the new format. When airport codes switched from two letters to three, the U.S. Navy snapped up all codes beginning with an "N." Newark, then, had to drop its first letter and just go with EWR, which presumably was thought to be more appropriate than EWA or EWK.

Another seemingly random set of letters, IAD do actually represent Dulles International Airport when shuffled around. The reason they are not in order is that the letters were often misheard as DCA, which is, of course, the code for Reagan National Airport, causing flights to be sent to the wrong airport and necessitating a change. (DCA, by the way, was named after District of Columbia.)

One thing Airport Codes does not explain is the obligatory "Y" at the beginning of every Canadian airport code. The answer, according to national carrier Air Canada, is that, when the U.S. National Weather Service established airport codes, "Canada was allotted a “Y” for all airports associated with a weather office." Even they can't explain, though, why Canada’s busiest airport, Toronto Pearson International Airport, is known by the "intriguing" YYZ. For an explanation we have to turn, as ever, to the aviation geeks at Quora

"Historically, towns along the Canadian National Railway had telegraph stations, each with two-letter codes," explains Ophir Ben-Yitschak. YZ was the code for the station in Malton, Ontario, where Pearson Airport is located, hence the IATA code for Pearson Airport is YYZ. "That's pretty much what it's all aboot."

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