Airport Codes - What Are They?

Author: Australis Gifts   Date Posted:2 December 2019 

Airport Codes - What Are They? main image Airport Codes - What Are They? image
Are you flying to FLY, maybe ARM or ODD - IATA airport codes explained


You are flying to the Gold Coast. You have checked in for your flight, received your boarding pass and your luggage has been tagged. But hold on a minute has there been a mistake, the tag on your luggage has the 3 letter code OOL. What's going on?

IATA Airport Codes Explained

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has established a set of unique 3 letter codes for many airports around the world to assist travellers and their luggage get to where they are meant to be with minimal confusion. Many of the 3 letter codes are the first three letters of a city's name where the airport is located such as Sydney (SYD), Melbourne (MEL), and Perth (PER). Or a combination of 3 letters in the city's name or airport's name such as Adelaide (ADL), Brisbane(BNE), and Hobart (HBA). But there are always exceptions, such as Gold Coast Airport (OOL). Gold Coast Airport was formerly known as Coolangatta Airport after the suburb in which it is located. The Coolangatta Airport  code was OOL and this is still the code for the airport even though it is now known as Gold Coast Airport. Similarly, the Sunshine Coast Airport has the airport code MCY after Maroochydore where the airport is located. There are other quirky Australian airport codes like ARM (Armidale in NSW), FLY (Finley in NSW), ODD (Oodnadatta in SA), UEE (Queenstown in TAS) and PPP (Whitsunday Coast Airport at Proserpine in Queensland).

The IATA airport codes are used the world over and codes like HKG (Hong Kong), SIN (Singapore), MEX (Mexico City) are self explanatory. Some airport codes such as LHR (Heathrow Airport in London), JFK (John F Kennedy International airport in New York), and LAX (Los Angeles International Airport - the letter 'X' or 'Z' is added when you need a third letter!) are widely recognised by travellers. Other airport codes don't give a clue as to where they might be. For example, Qantas recently announced it was starting direct flights from Brisbane to Chicago (ORD) in April 2020. The airport code ORD refers to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. The site of the airport was originally a farming community known as Orchard Place that later became an air base and manufacturing facility for Douglas C-54s in World War 11. What about the airport code for Beijing Capital International Airport in China - PEK? The PEK code is based on Beijing's former romanised name of Peking.

If you are flying to Vancouver (Canada) your bag will have a tag with the airport code YVR. Many of the larger airports in Canada have an IATA airport code starting with the letter 'Y'. Why you might ask! When the railways were built in Canada each railway station was given a two letter code - VR for Vancouver, TZ for Toronto, QB for Quebec, and so on. These same railway codes were used by the Canadian Government for the airport in that location with the addition of the letter 'Y' in front to indicate the airport had a weather station.  'Y' for yes the airport does have a weather station, such as YVR - yes Vancouver airport has a weather station, as does YTZ (Toronto), and YQB (Quebec).

The IATA's 3 letter airport code system allows for 17,576 different codes. New codes are being assigned as new airports are being developed. For example, the new Western Sydney International (Nancy-Bird Walton) Airport at Badgerys Creek (due for stage 1 completion in 2026) has been assigned the IATA airport code SWZ (note the 'Z' being used as the third letter!).

The IATA code should not be confused with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) four letter code. The ICAO code is used to identify airports and other aviation facilities around the world and is mostly used by air traffic control and airlines for flight operations. The IATA 3 letter codes are more often seen by travellers and are used predominantly for airline timetables, reservations, and baggage tags.

We'll save the ICAO codes for a whole new article!

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