When travelling we pay attention to the airport abbreviations on the flight tickets and boarding passes. Same abbreviations are used on the luggage invoices and in the airports on flight schedule screens.
In most cases there is nothing complicated to understand the international airport codes but sometimes it is not clear from the first sight.
What is the basic rule to create airport abbreviations?
The most clear approach is when the name of the airport was used to create IATA (International Air Transport Association) code, for example: Melbourne airport has MEL code, Dublin airport is DUB, Miami – MIA, Madrid – MAD, etc.
This is the case when the first three letters were used for the international airport codes. What happens if it is already given to another location?
Then passengers see the code, which is clear or easy to guess. For example the city of Hong Kong has the airport code of HKG – several letters are simply taken away.
The number of airports around the globe is increasing and sometimes it is not easy to find exact match for the three letters abbreviation code. That’s why Los Angeles is marked LAX, Portland is PDX. Where did the letter X come from?
Earlier, when the number of airports was not so numerous, the airports were called according to the closest meteo station. Los Angeles had a simple abbreviation of LA. With the rapid growth of travel and transportation industry two letters abbreviations turned out to be not enough. That’s why in come cases letter X was added to the airport code, like in case with Los Angeles, which is LAX now.
What is the strategy if there are several airports in one city? How airport abbreviation is created then?
If there are two or more airports in the same city IATA code would consist of the first letter of the city and the other two of the airport name. In London the International Heathrow airport is LHR, Gatwick – LGW, London city airport – LCY.
But still there may be some exceptions for the international codes. For example in Kiev city there are two airports: in Borispol and Zhulyany, which are marked with KBP and IEV codes. The last one doesn’t fall under the rule we have described above. The reason for this exception is that Zhulyany airport used to serve only local flights, and is geographically local in the city. In a while when budget air companies came to Ukraine the airport began to serve international flights as well and got IEV IATA abbreviation.
Some of the international codes assigned to the airports have the historical background explaining why IATA abbreviation differs from the name of the city and the airport. One of the examples is O’Hare International Airport of Chicago – ORD. The airport was located close to Orchard Place farm, later called Orchard Field Airport. This is where the abbreviation of ORD is derived from. Later the airport changed its name but the abbreviation remained the same.
For flights in Canada most of the airports start with Y. In early days when transport industry started to develop the letter Y was used in all the codes of radio communications. The letter Y is still used in the codes of Canadian airports: YYZ – Ontario, YQB- Quebec City Jean Lesage International airport.