Can You Guess These Major Cities Based on the Airport Code?
MSY? SDF? CVG? They're not as obvious as you'd think.
Book a flight into any airport in America today, and you’ll see a three-letter code. Designated by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), these codes allow pilots, air traffic controllers, and other aviation experts to fire off three quick syllables instead of using an airport’s entire name. After all, between BOS and General Edward Lawrence Logan International Airport, which one more clearly says, “Ground control, we’re flying into Boston?”
Generally, these airport codes are fairly easy to understand. Sometimes, they’re the first three letters of the nearest major city (ATL for Atlanta, DEN for Denver, and so on). Other times, they’re unmistakable city abbreviations (SLC for Salt Lake City). And, in some cases, they’re an obvious lift from the airport’s official name (like JFK, for New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport). But every so often, a code will pop up that makes even the most seasoned traveler think, “How in the world did they get that?”
To put your aviation knowledge to the test, we’ve compiled 40 of the most obscure, least obvious airport codes in the country for a little quiz. Buckle up, because you’re about to experience some serious mental turbulence!
Where is MCO?
Hint: If you’re going to the happiest place on earth, this is likely where you’re flying into.
So, what does the MCO stand for? It’s the airport’s former name, McCoy Air Force Base, which closed in 1975 and was reopened as Orlando International Airport in 1981.
Where is EWR?
Hint: This airport is one of three international airports serving one of America’s largest metropolitan areas.
Newark, New Jersey
Even though nearby JFK is more than twice the physical size, this three-terminal airport serves more flights each day. Small wonder it experiences more delays than most American airports! Its code—EWR—is simply the second, third, and fifth letters of the city’s name.
Where is MDW?
Hint: This city is home to Lollapalooza, one of the largest and most famous music festivals in the world.
Where is BNA?
Hint: You might move here if you’re trying to make your name as a guitar-strumming singer-songwriter.
Constructed as a Works Progress Administration (WPA) project during the Great Depression, Nashville’s first airport opened in 1937. The “B” in “BNA” stands for Berry Field, in honor of Colonel Harry S. Berry, who was the state administrator for the WPA.
Where is MSY?
Hint: This airport is named after one of the most influential musicians in the history of jazz.
New Orleans, Louisiana
A new $1 billion, 35-gate terminal is set to open at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport in the fall of 2019, accommodating even more people joining in the Mardi Gras merriment. (And if you’re puzzled as to how MSY stands for Louis Armstrong—it doesn’t. MSY stands for Moisant Stock Yards, the field where an early aviator died in an airplane crash, and where the good people of New Orleans consequently decided to build an airport.)
Where is SMF?
Hint: Prepare to eat lots of ketchup and soak up the sun after you touch down here, in the Big Tomato.
Though it’s currently called Sacramento International Airport, the original iteration of the airport opened in 1967 as Sacramento Metropolitan Airport—and it retained the “M” in its airport code.
Where is PBI?
Hint: Just over one-third of this city is devoted to a wetlands nature preserve.
West Palm Beach, Florida
The vacation hub that is Palm Beach International Airport is certainly hopping—PBI served nearly 540,000 passengers in May 2019 alone, according to the airport’s own statistics reports.
Where is CVG?
Hint: You’ll have to be sure to try some chili when visiting this city, which is known for its local variety and abundance of chains.
Cincinnati is located right on the Ohio-Kentucky state line. And CVG is an abbreviation for the town of Covington, Kentucky—which happened to be the nearest town when the airport was built in 1947, according to WCPO Cincinnati.
Where is RSW?
Hint: A boulevard in this city is lined with palm trees that are rumored to have been planted by Thomas Edison.
Fort Myers, Florida
Where is MCI?
Hint: It’s a toss-up whether you’ll be in one state or another when touring this city—but, either way, you’ll be squarely in the Midwest.
Kansas City, Missouri
Though it was originally known as the Mid-Continent International Airport, when the Missouri airport stepped up its game and started offering commercial services, admins changed the name to reflect that. The airport became Kansas City International Airport in 1972, yet the code remained MCI.
Where is PWM?
Hint: Don’t get this artsy waterfront city confused with its twin on the opposite coast.
Portland International Jetport (yes, Mainers are adamant that it is indeed a jetport and not an airport) was once known as Portland-Westbrook Municipal Airport, which explains the “W” in its code.
Where is GEG?
Hint: This city’s name is derived from a Native American word meaning “children of the sun,” according to its official website
As reported by The Spokesman-Review, Spokane International Airport was originally called Geiger Field—after prominent military aviator, Major Harold Geiger—until it was renamed in 1960 (hence all those “G’s” in its code).
Where is BWI?
Hint: This airport bears the name of a Supreme Court justice who was born in this city.
The Baltimore airport is named after Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American to serve on the highest court in the land. Though it’s now called the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the airport was originally called Friendship International Airport.
Where is SDF?
Hint: You might be planning to watch the horses run (with a fashionable hat, of course) if you’re heading toward this city.
Though it once was called Standiford Field—which is where the SDF comes from—the Kentucky airport now bears the straightforward name of Louisville International Airport.
However, in January 2019, the Louisville Courier Journal reported that the airport will be renamed Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport, as a nod to the impressive boxer who called Louisville home.
Where is ORD?
Hint: While in this city, be sure to stop by the sculpture shaped like a large legume.
O’Hare International Airport, one of the busiest airports in the world, was originally Orchard Douglas Field, which is where the ORD comes from.
Where is IAD?
Hint: Enjoy the monuments.
The Washington Dulles International Airport, named for the 52nd Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles (who served under President Dwight D. Eisenhower), was reportedly the first airport designed for jet-powered aircrafts, as explained by The Washingtonian.
The airport originally used code DIA, which stood for Dulles International Airport. But after it proved to be misread time and time again as DCA—which is the code for Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport—in 1968, Dulles’ code was changed to IAD.
Where is ECP?
Hint: Known for its white sand beaches, you’ll want to be sure to pack sunscreen (and maybe even your scuba diving gear) if you plan to spend time here.
Panama City Beach, Florida
Rumor has it, the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport—which serves Panama City Beach and nearby Panama City—originally wanted the three-letter code TFB for “The Florida Beaches,” but it was already taken by a Papua New Guinea airport. When going through a list of available codes, the selection group joked ECP could stand for “Everyone Can Party,” a wink at the city’s spring break reputation.
Where is DTW?
Hint: You can see this city from Canada!
If we’re being picky, the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport—the Wayne is where the “W” comes in—is actually located 18 miles outside of the Motor City. And the airport’s address is technically in Romulus, Michigan.
Where is PVD?
Hint: A prestigious university with the name of a color is based in this city (and the nearby airport has the name of a color, too).
Providence, Rhode Island
Along with housing Brown University, Providence—which is where the consonants PVD come from—also plays host to T.F. Green Airport. The airport is named for Theodore Francis Green, a politician who served as the governor of Rhode Island from 1933 to 1937.
Where is BDL?
Hint: This Northeastern city is home to the nation’s “oldest continuously-operating” public art museum, which was opened in 1844.
Be sure to stop by for a tour of the Wadsworth Atheneum, which displays more than 50,000 works of art, if you fly into Hartford’s Bradley International Airport. The airport is named after World War II veteran Lt. Eugene M. Bradley, according to the Hartford Courant, and the BDL stands for his last name.
Where is JAX?
Hint: This city is named after a military governor—specifically, the first military governor of the state it’s in.
The runways are always busy at Jacksonville’s (named after President Andrew Jackson) airport. In 2016, the airport—whose code is a shortened version of Jackson’s last name—served nearly 6 million passengers.
Where is CMH?
Hint: The very first Wendy’s (you know, the fast food chain famous for Frosties and never-frozen beef) opened here in 1969.
If you have a long layover at the John Glenn Columbus International Airport, go on a scavenger hunt for Brushstrokes in Flight, a 25-foot-tall sculpture created by Ohioan and late artist Roy Lichtenstein.
The airport code CMH stands for Columbus Municipal Hangar, which is the original name for the airport.
Where is ORF?
Hint: This city is home to both the world’s largest naval base and the North American Headquarters for NATO.
Servicing coastal Virginia and the northeastern part of North Carolina, Norfolk International Airport sees an average of over 250 operations (or landings and takeoffs combined) each day. Its code, ORF, may throw you off, but it’s actually just the second three letters of “Norfolk.”
Where is ICT?
Hint: You’re in good hands flying into this city, which is commonly referred to as the “Air Capital of the World.”
Boasting the distinction of constructing the first swept wing jet bomber, and known as a major aeronautical construction hub, Wichita also lays claim to the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport, which proudly proclaims Kansas’ ties to the 34th president of the United States.
Its code, ICT, is a product of the era in which it was created in the 1970s. At the time, the Federal Communications Commission prohibited airport codes starting with “K” or “W” and the second letter of the city was conventionally used, along with any phonetics to make it easier to identify. And thus, ICT—highlighting the letters of Wichita—was born.
Where is PDX?
Hint: This coastal city is home to the nation’s second-largest copper statue (behind the Statue of Liberty herself).
The National Weather Service initially used a two-letter identification system for U.S. cities, making Portland PD for weather and aviation purposes. But when the three-letter system was introduced by the IATA, those two-letter locales simply added an “X” at the end. (LAX is another example.)
Where is LNK?
Hint: Charles Lindbergh, who famously completed the first successful solo transatlantic flight, took his first flying lessons in this city.
Right in the midst of the Cornhuskers is Lincoln Municipal Airport, which has seen passenger numbers soar to new heights in the past year. As reported by the Lincoln Journal Star, the airport’s passenger numbers for April 2019 were up 30 percent from the numbers for April 2018. In this case, LNK is simply a vowel-free take on Lincoln.
Where is DCA?
Hint: This airport is named after a Hollywood actor-turned U.S. president. (You’re welcome for the underhand pitch.)
Sure, it’s not quite as chaotic as nearby Dulles, but Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is still fairly busy, servicing flights with destinations that typically don’t go any further than 1,250 miles away from Washington, D.C., in compliance with a federal “Perimeter Rule.” And as far as its code goes, DCA stands for District of Columbia airport.
Where is CAE?
Hint: Two-thirds of this Southern city was burnt to the ground by General William Tecumseh Sherman in 1865.
Columbia, South Carolina
The Columbia Metropolitan Airport produces an estimated $847 million for the state of South Carolina. What’s more, the airport, and the businesses inside it, employ more than 1,871 people in the “Soda City” (so-nicknamed by locals because of a fondness of shortening Columbia to “Cola”).
Where is MKE?
Hint: This city’s name is derived from a Native American word that loosely translates to “a rich, beautiful land,” according to the state’s historical society.
The largest city in Wisconsin, Milwaukee is home to the General Mitchell International Airport. The airport is named for General William “Billy” Mitchell, who served in World War I and was appointed Chief of Air Service of the First Army.
MKE—which is short for Milwaukee—has the pride of being the only airport in Wisconsin and Illinois that provides service from all major domestic airlines. (Even the globally connected O’Hare can’t boast that.)
Where is DLH?
Hint: Known as one of the nation’s major ports, this city docks more than 1,000 ocean-going and Great Lakes freighters on a yearly basis.
The Duluth International Airport has grown so much in the past years that the Federal Aviation Administration recently awarded the airport a $600,000 grant to conduct a noise study. The study will help DLH—short for Duluth—find solutions for reducing the noise caused by its airplanes coming and going, as reported by WDIO.
Where is DSM?
Des Moines, Iowa
Des Moines International Airport recently achieved its highest month of passenger traffic in the airport’s 71-year history during March 2019. The airport served over 260,000 passengers in that month alone.
Where is JAN?
Hint: Located in the capital of a Southern state, this airport is named after a civil rights activist.
After serving in World War II, Medgar Wiley Evers joined the NAACP and advocated for civil rights in Jackson, Mississippi, until he was murdered in 1963. A few decades later, the Jackson airport officially became the Jackson-Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport to honor the activist’s contributions. Since JAX was taken, JAN serves as a shortened version for Jackson here.
Where is TPA?
The Tampa International Airport puts a big focus on going green: Since 2009, the airport has used 604 million gallons (enough water to fill 915 Olympic-sized swimming pools) of reclaimed water for its landscape irrigation and cooling towers.
Where is MHT?
Hint: This New England city is the most populous in its state, and it has a namesake in Great Britain.
Manchester, New Hampshire
If you have some time on your hands (thanks, flight delays!), wander over to the east side of the Manchester-Boston Regional Airport to immerse yourself in some aviation history. The area where the original 1937 terminal was once located has now been transformed into the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire.
Where is AVL?
Hint: One of the wealthiest families in U.S. history constructed a luxurious estate here, and it’s open for fawning tourists to admire.
Asheville, North Carolina
Beyond the Biltmore Estate, Asheville (or AVL) also plays host to the Asheville Regional Airport. The airport works hard to stay abreast of current trends, and even recently surprised its passengers with a celebration of National Yoga Day in June 2019.
Where is CYS?
Hint: This city takes its name from a Native American word meaning “aliens,” or “people of the foreign language,” according to the city’s website.
“Compact” is the perfect word to describe the single terminal at Cheyenne Regional Airport, which is just one story tall and accommodates only three airlines.
Where is BHM?
Hint: This Southern city features a replica of the Statue of Liberty that is about one-fifth of the original’s size.
Renamed after civil rights activist Fred L. Shuttlesworth in 2008, the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport is Alabama’s largest airport in terms of passenger traffic.
Where is AZO?
Hint: Music fans will recognize this city as home to the creator of the earliest documented Gibson instrument.
Way back in 1929, what is now the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport became Michigan’s first municipal airport. It was originally named Lindbergh Field in honor of none other than Charles Lindbergh, but its code comes from a portion of Kalamazoo.
Where is IAH?
Hint: This city was at one time home to a late president, whom the airport is consequently named after.
George Bush Intercontinental Airport, named after the late George H.W. Bush, is massive, fitting for an airport located in the state where “everything’s bigger.” To put the airport’s enormity in perspective, IAH has more than 620,000 square feet of windows and more than 41,000 square feet of flowers and shrubbery, according to the Houston Chronicle. And if you’re wondering, originally, IAH stood for international airport of Houston.
Where is GSO?
Hint: Former First Lady Dolley Madison was born in the locale that later became this Southern city.
Greensboro, North Carolina
This North Carolina airport is actually a bit of a trifecta. Officially known as the Piedmont Triad International Airport, it services the region that includes Greensboro, High Point, and Winston-Salem. Though people often refer to the airport as “PTI” in passing, its official code is GSO for Greensboro. Confusing, we know. And for more quizzes, Can You Guess the State Based on Its Weirdest World Record?
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