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Cracking Airport Codes Part 1

When I was 18, I worked as a baggage handler for about ten minutes. Like any job, baggage handling had its own language, a huge part of which was airport codes. These three letter acronyms tell you which airport the bag was headed. Some were easy to figure out – AMS is Amsterdam and SFO is San Francisco – but others weren’t so obvious, and some had fascinating origins. We tweeted a cool story recently about why there is a Y at the beginning of all Canadian airport codes, so I thought it might be interesting to revisit my baggage handling days and explore some of the more out there airport codes and out how they came to be.
All of these destinations can be reached directly from YVR.  

ORD (Chicago O'Hare International Airport) – Daily flights with Air Canada, WestJet and United Airlines

The biggest airport in Chicago is named after Edward O’Hare, a WWII flying ace and Medal of Honor recipient. The airport code, however, has nothing to do with Mr. O’Hare. When the airport was constructed in 1942-43 to build aircraft for the war effort, there was a need for a very large tract of land. An area known as Orchard Place was chosen and the airport was known from then until 1949 as Orchard Field Airport and bore the IATA code of ORD. The code went unchanged when the entire facility was later renamed.

Bonus fun fact: Chicago O’Hare is one of only a few airports that currently utilize Automated Passport Control, a technology developed by YVR that speeds up the US Customs process by having passengers screened electronically. 

YCD  (Nanaimo Airport) – Daily flights with Air Canada and WestJet

The passenger terminal for Nanaimo is known as the Collishaw Air Terminal, for Nanaimo-born war hero Raymond Collishaw. But much like ORD, there is no connection between the war hero and the airport code, which came much earlier. After leading with the Canadian standard airport prefix of Y, see article link above, the CD is derived from the home of the airport: Cassidy, British Columbia, which is just south of Nanaimo.

Bonus fun fact: At about 25 minutes, the trip from YVR to YCD is one of the shortest we offer.

CDG (Paris) – Air Transat Flight TS408 Departs weekly from YVR, Thursdays at 1800

The code for the biggest airport serving France’s capital city of Paris is taken from the initials of Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French forces, founder of the French Fifth Republic and former President of France. The airport is one of the busiest in the world (second in Europe after London Heathrow and 10th in the world), having served more than 61 million passengers and handling almost 500,000 aircraft movements in 2012. 

Bonus fun fact: CDG is also known colloquially as Roissy, as part of the airport, but none of the terminals are located in Roissy-en-France, a commune in the northeastern suburbs of Paris.

OGG (Kahului Airport) – Westjet Flight WS1852 departs six times a week during the summer, twice a week starting October 28

The airport code for Kahului Airport on the island of Maui pays homage to Bertram J. Hogg. Hogg was an aviation pioneer in Hawaii who flew amphibious aircraft from island to island in the 1960s. The code HOG was already taken by an airport in Cuba so OGG was decided instead.

Bonus fun fact: The route between HNL (Honolulu) and OGG is one of the busiest in America (13th in 2004 with 1.63 million passengers).

LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) – Daily departures with Air Canada, WestJet, United, Delta and Alaska Airlines

This is certainly the easiest code on the list to crack, but what’s with mystery X? There was a time when airport codes were only two letters long, and based on the city designations given by the National Weather Service. When it became apparent that three-letter codes would be necessary to accommodate all the airports, an X was added to LA and other existing airports to make it compliant.

Bonus fun fact: Portland (PDX) and Phoenix (PHX) airports also had X added to their two-letter codes, but for Phoenix it was far more convenient.




  • Arthur Sacramento wrote on Sep 20 2013 AT 1:21 PM

    Very interesting. I always wondered about it. I do have a question though: Why the airports code in Canada start with the letter Y?
  • David Smith wrote on Sep 20 2013 AT 1:35 PM

    A good article about the same topic, by an airline pilot...
  • YVR Airport wrote on Sep 20 2013 AT 1:41 PM

    @Arthur - There is a link in the intro that will tell you all about the Y in Canadian airport codes.

    @Dabid - Thanks for the link! Very cool.
  • Ian Phillips wrote on Sep 27 2013 AT 9:46 PM

    So how did Tegel in Berlin get TXL?
    Poor Berlin can't even get BER assigned for the new airport which is delayed indefinitely.  
    Comox YQQ  mmm YCX makes more sense
  • dave axe wrote on Oct 17 2013 AT 11:23 AM

    I always thought Amsterdam was SPL????
  • Gordon McFarlane wrote on Oct 17 2013 AT 3:20 PM

    "Westjet Flight WS1852 departs six times a week during the summer, twice a week starting October 27".

    You mean twice a day from October 28.
  • YVR Airport wrote on Oct 17 2013 AT 3:24 PM

    Thanks for catching that Gordon, we will fix the post.
  • Jack wrote on May 07 2014 AT 5:53 PM

    So, who made all these Airport Codes?
  • Brendan McCullough wrote on Dec 01 2014 AT 3:48 PM

    As a further data point, airport codes are usually the last three letters of the airport's radio call sign.  YVR = CYVR, SEA = NSEA etc.  Canada uses radio call signs in the CY to CZ range for airports so you can have a code like ZBB (Boundary Bay) aka CZBB. 
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