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Here's Why Some Airports Wind Up With Code Names That Make No Sense



Some people brush off airplane codes as one of life's little mysteries. Boston's airport code is BOS, which is simple enough, but EWR for Newark is just "one of those things." Right?

Turns out there's a rhyme and reason for just about every airport code out there. An article originally published in December 1994 in Air Line Pilots journal by Dave English explains nearly every mysterious airport code you've ever come across.

In the early 20th century, there were only a handful of "airports," which in reality were just any area big enough for a plane to land or take off. But when other airports started cropping up in the 1930s, the previous coding system had to be reevaluated. The airports with two-letter weather station codes received an X on the end (LA became LAX and Portland's PD became PDX), and every subsequent airport was given three letters.

Those three letters were usually the first three letters of the city name — Atlanta became ATL, Boston is BOS, etc. But in some cases, the codes are a little more confusing:

1. An airport code is named after the airport itself: Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris is CDG, John F. Kennedy airport in New York is JFK.

2. The airport is named after the location: Harrisburg International airport is actually located in Middletown, Pennsylvania, and is known as MDT.

3. The airport is named after a historical figure: Knoxville airport in Tennessee was built on land donated by the Tyson Family in honor of their son killed in WWI (TYS).

4.  Locations beginning with an 'N': The Navy saved all of the new 'N' codes for itself, thus Newark becomes EWR, while the Navy training airport in Pensacola, Florida is NPA.

5. Locations beginning with W or K are only for radio stations east and west of the Mississippi, respectively. So Wilmington, North Carolina becomes ILM and Key West, Florida is EYW.

6. 'Q' is designated for international telecommunications.

7. 'Z' is reserved for special uses: ZCX is the computer address of FAA's air traffic control headquarters, for example.

8. Canadians got all the 'Y' codes. YUL for Montreal, YYZ for Toronto, and so on.

The system gets even more complex if you take into account all of the new, smaller airports that were given codes with numbers or four letter combinations. Not to mention international airports and flights — for example, all flights entering the US have airport codes with a 'K' in front of the original three-letter code (Key West then gets to be called KEYW).

There isn't really a need for you to remember all of these facts given that most tickets and airlines will display not only the airport code, but the name and location of your destination as well. But at least the next time you fly into Newark, you'll remember why its code is EWR.

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