Breaking the (airport) codes

If you’ve done any amount of flying, you’ll be familiar with airport codes, the three-letter -combinations that denote each airport in the world. And you’ll probably have noticed that while some are obvious, others are much less so.

The classic three-letter airport code is defined by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and although they make sure no code is ever used by more than one place, there are a number of different ways a code can come into being.

Most often, the code is some approximation of the name of the city or airfield that doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, such as EWR for Newark or NRT for Tokyo Narita, so you won’t hear people say it unless they’re an aviation geek.

There are other codes which seem random, but actually refer to former names. Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan is FRU because the Soviets called the city “Frunze.” Chicago O’Hare is ORD, because the airport used to be known as “Orchard Field.”

In some places, the airport code is firmly in the lexicon – people in Los Angeles head to “LAX,” and in New York, you get picked up at “JFK.” “RIX” is sometimes used by Latvians to refer to their capital airport, and it’s not uncommon to hear Oregonians refer to “PDX.” Clearly the X at the end just makes it nice to say.

Then there’s Canada, where all the airport codes start with Y – so good luck guessing which city it’s attached to. 

Scandinavian airport codes are, for the most part, no surprise, well-organized and straightforward. CPH is Copenhagen, OSL is Oslo, KRN is Kiruna, though those unfamiliar with Stockholm Arlanda Airport might be stumped at the sight of ARN. Malmö had the presence of mind to add an X to theirs – in fact, if there was a medal for best-sounding code in the Nordics it might go to MMX! 


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