The Confusing Logic Behind International Airport Codes

CGP Grey explains, in his rather feverish manner, the confusing logic behind the seemingly random codes that are used to identify airport locations throughout the world.

There are thousands of airports connecting cities across countries and continents. Yet with just three letters from AAC and BBI to YYZ and ZZU, both me and you and our bags root around the world as unambiguously as practically possible. Airport codes. If you fly you know them as part of the planning on your tickets, trackers, and tags, and even as part of the airport port itself as big big branding. it’s impossible not to wonder…

Airport Code Confusion

He further notes how international organizations like IATA and ICAO determine the specific codes for every airport in the world, although IATA codes are mainly used for luggage tracking.

Collision kicks off a consistency cascade as airports compete for clear codes. So if your local airport has an odd three letters there’s probably a rival port that picked previously. This is one of the major things IATA does, coordinate everyone’s code preferences which means dealing with not just individual airports but all the aviation agencies in different countries some with their own design desires for inter-country code consistency such as Canada who clearly claimed all the Ys.

It gets even more complicated in North America as the FAA and FCC also oversee codes within the US and sometimes Canada, albeit with great exceptions. Despite the “one airport, one code” mandate, the reality was made incredibly complicated due to the exclusions of certain letters.

The Federal Aviation Administration …is given the job of assigning All American airports and American airport code. Yes, the FAA actually has her own set of three-letter codes but we’re not going to talk about it because it means in America there’s one airport two codes and for Simplicity I’m sticking to this story one airport one code right right now FAA has letters she’d really rather American airports not please know N Q W K Z or Y.

That said, despite this maddening mess of acronyms, we usually get to where we’re going. With all this in mind, perhaps a delayed flight doesn’t seem so bad anymore.

Lori Dorn
Lori Dorn

Lori is a Laughing Squid Contributing Editor based in New York City who has been writing blog posts for over a decade. She also enjoys making jewelry, playing guitar, taking photos and mixing craft cocktails.