What do Airport Codes Mean?
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Whether you are a frequent traveller or a first-time traveller, you will get to see a three-letter code following both your departure airport and destination airport on your ticket, so what do airport codes mean?

A picture of a boarding  pass.

What do airport codes mean?


IATA, the International Air Transport Association, defines itself as a trade association for the world's airlines. Its main mission is to represent the airline industry and improve understanding of the air transport industry among decision-makers and increase awareness of the benefits that aviation brings to national and global economies.

ICAO is the International Civil Aviation Organization, an intergovernmental body founded by the Chicago Convention that has evolved into a specialized agency in connection to the United Nations. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which has its headquarters in Montreal, offers the framework for standardization and agreement between Contracting States on all technical, economic, and legal facets of international civil aviation.

IATA VS ICAO Airport Codes:

IATA Airport Codes:

These are the ones you are most familiar with. The IATA airport codes are widely adopted and used by airlines and agencies. You will see the IATA three-letter airport codes on your ticket, boarding passes, baggage tags and more.

What do the IATA airport codes mean:

It's best to use an example for this.

If you travel from Atlanta airport to Las Vegas airport, you will notice that the Atlanta airport abbreviation is ATL, and the Las Vegas airport abbreviation is LAS.

If you think about it for a bit, you will see that ATL is just short for Atlanta, and LAS is just short for LAS in LAS VEGAS.

Dublin Airport IATA code? It's DUB.

Amsterdam Airport IATA code? It's AMS.

Frankfurt Airport IATA code? It's FRA.

You can see the pattern here, but is it the norm for all airport codes worldwide? Here are a few questions for you:

  • What's Orlando International Airport IATA code?
  • What's Noi Bai International Airport IATA code?
  • What's Kansas City international airport IATA code?

If you don't already know, then you probably answered using the same pattern we established earlier, which is pretty logical and fair (ORL for Orlando, NOI for Noi Bai and KCI for Kansas); however, this is not the case.

Orlando International Airport IATA code is MCO. The reason is that the airport's name changed as previously it was called "McCoy Air Force Base".

Noi Bai International Airport IATA code is HAN. The naming is after the city in which the airport is located, which is HANOI.

Kansas City international airport's IATA code is MCI. The reason is that the airport name changed as previously it was called "Mid-Continent International Airport".

So far, we can see that the airport code and abbreviations are not intuitive after all. The airport codes are designated either after the first letters of the airport name, the city or its previous naming. But hold up for a second; we still have some questions to answer:

What does the X originate from on some airport codes? For example, why is Dubai Airport DXB? and why is Los Angeles airport code LAX?

Why is Cork airport IATA code ORK and not COR?

Why is Abu Dhabi International Airport IATA code AUH and not ABU?

The Secret Behind The IATA Code "X":

X in airport codes play as a filler letter. In the case of Dubai airport, the code should've been DUB, but that's already taken by Dublin Airport, so IATA opted for the closest code possible to the airport name and added the filler letter X in the middle to become DXB.

As for Los Angeles airport, the code should've been LOS, so how did we end up with LAX? This exact question has an answer from the Los Angeles airport official website:

Before the 1930s, existing airports used a two-letter abbreviation based on the weather station at the airports. So, at that time, LA served as the designation for Los Angeles International Airport. But, with the rapid growth in the aviation industry, the designations expanded to three letters, and LA became LAX. The letter X does not otherwise have any specific meaning in this identifier.

In summary, what's the meaning of the X in airport codes?

It doesn't have a meaning. The airports are named in date order, so if you come late, like the Dubai airport, you might find that your "desired, closest" code is already taken. If you are way too early, then IATA gives you an extra X to "integrate" with the rest of the airports.

Talking about being late, it's the same as what happened with Cork Airport and Abu Dhabi. Cork airport code should've been COR, but that's already taken by "Ingeniero Aeronáutico Ambrosio L.V. Taravella International Airport", located in CORdoba, Argentina.

As for Abu Dhabi, the code should've been "ABU", but that's already taken by "A. A. Bere Tallo Airport" in Indonesia.

ICAO Airport Codes:

ICAO codes are four-letter codes primarily used by Pilots, Air traffic controllers, aviation meteorologists and most aviation personnel to some extent.

ICAO Airport code First Letters Meaning
Figure 01

Hytar, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

They have a more logical approach than the IATA codes. The meanings behind the ICAO 4-letter codes is as follows:

  • The First letter of the ICAO airport code stands for the region where the airport is located.

Examples: "K" stands for the United States, "C" For Canada but most of the time, a bunch of countries share the same letter, like "E", "L", "D", and so on (Refer to the map Above - Figure 01 -).

  • The Second letter of the ICAO airport code stands for the country where the airport is.

Examples: "G" stands for Great Britain, "P" For Portugal, and "A" for Algeria. But this is not a hard rule, as you might have guessed. Just like the IATA codes, some countries will have the same codes, so there have to be distinctions in this case. This is the case for Spain & Switzerland, they are both in the L region and both starts with S, but Spain's first two-letter codes are" LE", and Switzerland's is "LS". I'm guessing that Switzerland was given priority here, and Spain was given the letter "E" as it signifies how Spain is called in Spanish "España".

  • The Third and Fourth letters of the ICAO airport code are different for different countries. Sometimes the third letter stands for the location or the radar centre that the airport is located under, and the fourth letter is either the first letter of the airport or it was assigned in alphabetical order.
World Countries ICAO Codes
Figure 02

Brhaspati at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/, via Wikimedia Commons


I'm ending this article with the honorary mention of some "funny" IATA codes that exist out there in the real world, and these are:

  • OMG IATA code which stands for Omega Airport in Namibia.
  • FAT IATA code, which stands for Fresno Yosemite International Airport.
  • SUX IATA code which stands for Sioux Gateway Airport in IOWA.
  • LOL IATA code stands for Derby Field in Nevada.
  • POO IATA code which stands for Poços de Caldas Airport in Brazil.

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