Airport Code Names: Sometimes a Little Too LAX

By Mark Skoultchi

April 28, 2011

By the grace of God, I’m not that frequent a traveler.  There’s just nothing redeeming about airports and air travel anymore, and this of course is a tired subject.  I visit my remote clients periodically, because I really do believe in the value of in-person conversations, but more often than not I’m hopping on a videoconference rather than a plane these days.  A still-recovering economy might have something to do with my clients’ surprising openness to this new kind of face-to-face meeting.

But that’s a separate subject, and really not that interesting.  What I want to draw your attention to is airport codes.  I know, doesn’t sound much more interesting, but it’s a curious little naming subject and sometimes pretty darn amusing.
I’m talking about the three letter codes used to identify airports around the world.  Most people know a handful of airport codes, usually specific to the places they visit most frequently.  For me, it’s the NYC airport codes (JFK, LGA and EWR for Kennedy, LaGuardia, and Newark respectively) SFO for San Francisco, OAK for Oakland, ATL for Atlanta, ORD for Chicago, a few others.

Of course there’s an established process for assigning airport codes (more precisely known as “location identifiers”), which is overseen by the Montreal-based IATA (International Air Transport Association).  It’s a somewhat complicated affair, and not exactly the point of this post, but if you’re interested in reading about how the IATA comes to the designations, here’s a pretty good article on the history and process.

While EWR isn’t nearly as intuitive as JFK as an identifier, I’m not particularly offended by it, and generally indifferent about the vast majority of location codes.  But there are a few IATA codes that kinda have me scratching my head. Codes with noticeably negative associations and meanings.  Such as:

MIA
For Miami, FL.  Really??  Missing In Action??  For anything “destination” related??   Absolutely crazy.

LAX
Security.  For Los Angeles, CA.

HRL
For Harlingen, TX.  Just pray you can get to HRL before you hurl.

ELP
For El Paso, TX.  “ELP!  ELP!  We’re goin’ down!  We’re goin’ down!”

PIT
For Pittsburgh, PA.  I mean, c’mon, the city is already jokingly a pit.  Was there really a need to reinforce the association??

MLB
For Melbourne, FL.  It’s just impossible to look at that abbreviation and not think national pastime.

BOM
Everybody off the plane!!  Now, now!!  For Mumbai, India. (Yeah, yeah, we know, Bombay.)

MOB
For Mobile, AL.  Airport.  Mob scene.  Okay, maybe this one is just setting expectations.

LIT
For Little Rock, AR.  Um, Captain Bartlett, do you think you should be drinking so much right before a flight?

PAP
Smear.  For Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

FAT
For Fresno, CA.  I think the politically correct term is “obese”.  Our airport is obese.

GUC
For Gunnison, CO.  Take your pick: really wet, sloppy substance or completely offensive and derogatory term for East Asians.  How could this not have occurred to someone??

MAD
For Madrid, SP.  Again, probably just setting the right expectations.  You will wait.  You will be pissed.  Plan on it.

YOW
Ottawa, ON.  It’s not so much that it’s an expression for something painful or shocking, though that fact makes it a curious choice.  I just think it needs an exclamation point after it.  That would actually make it a really cool location identifier.  YOW!  It just calls for it, doesn’t it?

And the most incredible location identifier of all, the one that should’ve gotten at least a department of people fired, is …

DOA.
For Doany, Madagascar.  Insert joke here.

By the way, after reading the history of these codes, it appears that there is some flexibility in how they’re named.  That is, the system utilized by the IATA doesn’t seem SO rigid that they couldn’t have chosen different abbreviations.  But even if the system was generally prescriptive, you think someone, somewhere, at some time would’ve pulled rank and put the kibosh on some of these codes.  MIA and DOA?  Srsly.

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