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Airport Codes: Three Letters And A Few Unsolved Mysteries

When I was boy, my mother worked in the sky. She was a flight attendant. Each month she brought home a new paper booklet, a schedule that listed every Southwest Airlines flight.

The map on the back was a spaghetti bowl of intersecting lines. A short hop from PHX to LAX. In the Midwest, it was MDW straight to STL. And DAL nonstop to LBB.

Who knew the flight from Dallas Love Field to Lubbock, Texas, could be so exciting!

There was a promise of adventure in every one of those little letters, and I memorized as many as I could.

Turns out, I’m not alone. Lynn Fisher and Nick Crohn, two web designers from the Phoenix area, may love airport codes as much as I do. They launched the website airportcod.es in March that links hundreds of those three-letter pairs with a pretty picture, and a brief story about the airport.

“When you find out the code, you do learn a little bit about the city and the airport’s history.”

So, what’s up with MCO?

“MCO is Orlando,” Fisher told me. According to their website, Orlando International Airport was once a military airfield known as McCoy Airforce Base. The name honors Colonel Michael Norman Wright McCoy. Thus, an airport code was born. Fisher said a lot of airport codes are named after people. Some are named after city names from yesteryear.

“Mumbai’s airport is BOM for Bombay, which was the previous English version,” Fisher explained. “It’s something people see when people travel but you don’t think a lot of it. And when you find out the code, you do learn a little bit about the city and the airport’s history.”

For example, the code MSY belongs to Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. Nick Crohn says that one is his personal favorite. His website explains that the code is inspired by aviator John Moisant.

“He ended up crashing in this empty field early, early on, and later it ended up becoming a stockyard,” Crohn said. “And the name Moisant Stockyards, because of the field he crashed in, kind of stuck there. When the airport was built on that space it became MSY.”

Fisher’s favorite reveals the fun inherent in airport codes.

“I like the ones that create new words,” she said. “For an example, SUX.”

That’s Sioux City, Iowa. When the city had the chance to change its code, the alternatives weren’t much better.

“So they ended up really embracing it, and now their slogan is Fly SUX.”

Now, here’s a mystery that the website hasn’t cracked yet. Why do Canadian codes start with Y? Vancouver is YVR. Ottawa YOW. Fly into YYZ and you’ll end up in Toronto. When Fisher called around to Canadian airports, she said most of them didn’t really know for sure where the Y came from. One story that kept coming up, she said, is that the Y stands for “Yes, we have a weather station.”

That didn’t exactly sound like confirmation. So I made a call of my own.

Perry Flint is a spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, the group responsible for assigning airport codes around the world. He checked around for a few days and came back with something like an answer. He said the Canadian codes were assigned in the prewar years, and “basically, that’s a tradition that stuck.”

That sounds like code for: There is no good reason.

“Perhaps way back then there was some reason,” Flint said. “But if there is, it’s lost in the mysteries of time.”

So we may never know the why behind the Y. That’s almost enough to drain the enthusiasm out of the 12-year-old me who daydreamed in three-letter codes.



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