Airport Codes - What Are they Needed and Used For?

Airport codes consist of three digits and denote the various airports around the world. They have different names, from IATA location identifier to IATA station code and is defined by the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

The IATA Resolution 763 governs the assignment of these codes and is administered by the IATA headquarters in Montreal.

Why are they needed?

Airport codes help pilots in location identification. In the beginning, it was only the pilots in the United States who used a two-letter code issued by the National Weather Service that helped identify cities. The method of using a two-letter system meant that cities and towns without an NSW identifier were difficult to locate, there was a need to have a three-letter system of airport codes. A three-letter system meant that there could be as much as 17,576 names.

However, the common practice is to name the codes after the first three letters of the city. For instance, ATL refers to Atlanta while DEL refers to Delhi. It can even consist of a combination of the letters in the name. For instance, JNB refers to the airport in Johannesburg and HKG refers to Hong Kong. After the introduction of the three-tier system, some airports in United States just added an X in the end, a reason LAX stands for Los Angeles and PDX for Portland.

For cities having more than one airport, naming the codes after the name of the airport or the place itself rather than the city solves the problem. Ezeiza (EZE) is an airport in Buenos Aires, named after the suburb in Ezeiza Partido. Chicago too has two airports, designated ORD and MDW.

For cities with the same name, different code names are assigned. There are two places named San Jose, one in Costa Rica, and one in California. They are named as SJO and SJC respectively; the last letter is denoting the city or place name.

Some airports retain their historical names. For example, Kolkata Airport in India is named as CCU because the place was known as Calcutta earlier, during the British times.

The permutation often results in some funny names as well, like FAT in Fresno, California or BOO that refers to Norway's Bodo Airport.

What are they used for?

The codes help keep a track of the luggage during transfers. For example, the characters are prominently displayed on every baggage tag that are attached to airport check-in desks.

Airlines use the three-letter codes extensively in their network and is helpful when handling customer passenger loads and when identifying an airport. It helps travelers locate the airports and even track baggage. Airport codes often tell about the place itself. The Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport (BZN) for instance, refers to the Yellowstone Park nearby that serves as a hotspot for tourists.

Today, airport codes also help flight search engines track down an airport and know the schedule and departure times of flights. An airport's name is an asset

One can find the codes for all the airport stations around the world in the IATA Airline Coding Directory.