how airport come up with their abbreviations



I think they’re called, airport codes? But, how do airports determine what theirs is? It seems like there isn’t an clear pattern to different airports abbreviations. (EX: Denver’s airport code is DEN, San Francisco’s is SFO, Baltimore’s is BWI)

In: Other

They try to use the first three letters first, and that works for the majority of codes, but sometimes they’re already in use.

So the second option is just some unique combo of letters in the city’s name, like EWR for Newark.

If not that, they might take initials of a metro area (DFW for Dallas/Fort Worth) or an honorary name of an airport (JFK).

Canada’s codes are some of the weirdest because they reused old weather station identifiers for the newly built airports.

Some airports change name. If their name lends itself to 3 letters, and it isn’t taken, then good. BWI is Baltimore Washington International. O’Hare is ORD because long ago it was Orchard Field.

It’s a bit all over the place, there are standards but it varies a lot by country and location.

Ideally each city would use 3 initials that represent them like DEN for Denver, but a lot of cities have multiple airports so you end up with airport codes like LAX (LA with an X) or JFK (The JFK airport)

There’s also overlap, so the largest or first airports with a particular handle win and the new guy gets a weird identifier.

Canada puts Y’s in front of all major airports because they decided to use existing Railway/Weather station 2 digit names and added Y to the front like YED (Edmonton), YWG (Winnipeg), and more esoteric ones like YYZ (Pearson airport Toronto)

It depends, some are descriptive tradition like National (DCA, literally DC Airport) or Hobby (HOU for Houston). Some are designed to be similarly descriptive on a new airport, like Dulles (IAD, literally meaning International Airport Dulles) or Houston Bush (IAH, for the same reason as IAD). BWI also falls into this category.

Some codes bear little relevance to their airports namesake; such as Carroll County Regional in Maryland, which bears the identifier DMW; or York, Pennsylvania bearing the identifier THV.

Now, those are FAA codes, and all FAA airport codes that are letters only drop the leading K from the international (ICAO) identification (ie BWI’s full identifier is KBWI). Some FAA codes don’t have the leading K with 3 letters. W00, Freeway and W05, Gettysburg Pennsylvania are examples of this. When you have one of those airports, the lack of the K indicates it doesn’t have weather on field.

Now, the US is one of the few countries where the airport identifier when you book matches the airport’s actual identifier (Canada is another, but England is not, and Alaska and Hawaii are exceptions). Many countries have 2 letter prefixes. For example, Benito Juarez airport in Mexico City is MEX when booking, but the actual airport identifier is MMMX with MM being the prefix for Mexico. Nassau will show up as NAS when booking, its identifier is MYNN with MY being the prefix for the Bahamas. Heathrow is LHR when booking but its identifier is EGLL, EG being the prefix for the UK. In these cases the identifier you see is determined by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), and is used for convenience over the ICAO.

TLDR: it’s determined by either the local aviation administration, such as the FAA or EASA, or by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). The codes you frequently see are actually IATA codes and don’t identify the airport for the purposes of a flight plan, only booking. In some countries, like the US and Canada, the IATA and ICAO codes tend to match.