Unraveling Airport IDs

As a passenger on business jets, you’ve probably overheard pilots talking to each other in aviation vernacular that may sound like a foreign language. In most cases avspeak simply consists of abbreviations for words and numbers. For example, notices to airmen becomes notams and number one attitude direction indicator becomes ADI-1.

Airports too have identifiers, consisting usually of three letters for larger facilities and alphanumeric codes for smaller airfields. These abbreviations help to prevent confusion as to the intended facility and are used by pilots to quickly enter airport information into electronic navigation systems. It would obviously take a lot longer to keystroke in John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York, New York, than to just punch in JFK.

Two organizations assign identifiers to be used in flight planning. For domestic U.S. flights, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) assigns codes. For international flights, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) assigns them. Pilots know which agency made the assignment because a K precedes all ICAO codes. Therefore, JFK becomes KJFK and the latter code can be used for both domestic and international flight planning. That’s simple enough. The JFK code is nearly self-explanatory and even non-pilots can easily surmise that KJFK or JFK is New York’s Kennedy Airport.

The fun begins when identifiers seem to have little or no relationship to their airports. For example, you might assume that the code for Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport would be something like OHI. Nope: it’s ORD. The airport was once the site of an aircraft factory known as Orchard Place—thus, the “ORD” designation for Orchard. The code for business aviation facility Teterboro Airport in New Jersey is logical: TEB. But Westchester County Airport in White Plains, New York, another popular business aviation facility, is HPN. The letters stand for three surrounding communities: Harrison, Purchase, and New Castle.

If you Google a list of identifiers, you’ll see some that seem obvious and others that appear nonsensical. But most of the non-obvious codes aren’t random: they generally refer to some historical event or place. And researching the origin of your favorite airport’s code can be fun, interesting, and educational. —Gordon Gilbert