Why do airports have the 3 letter abbreviations?

Screenshot from AirportCod.es

Screenshot from AirportCod.es

The Wright Brothers first flew their aircraft at Kitty Hawk, NC as most of you learned in elementary school. However, there wasn’t a KTH abbreviated airport at the time for you to to take a flight to.

Some quick facts about the IATA Codes:

  • There are over 17,000 unique, three-letter combinations
  • The US Navy reserved the letter ‘N’ (Newark is EWR)
  • The Federal Communications Commission have reserved the letters ‘W’ and ‘K’ (Key West, FL is EYW)
  • Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is ORD due to it being on the outside of the busy city of Chicago near Orchard Field
  • Not all airports have the same FAA and IATA code

If you travel a good bit in Canada, you’ve probably noticed how a lot of airports are YYZ, YUL, YVR, and so on – all of them beginning with the ‘Y’. This ‘Y’ dates all the way back to the first days of radiotelegraphy (source).

Airports in the USA that were around during their weather station counterparts simply appended on an ‘X’. Some notable examples are Portland (PDX), Los Angeles (LAX), and Sioux Falls (SUX).

Fly Sux


Sioux Falls was so upset about their abbreviation that they petitioned the IATA to change their abbreviation. They were offered a couple of alternatives (GWU, GYO, GYT, SGV, and GAY). However, the airport board decided against all of those options. Their slogan and merchandise in the airport is appropriately branded with ‘Fly SUX‘.

Want to learn more about your favorite airports, check out this beautifully designed website. Want to learn even more about the history of IATA codes, SkyGod was a great resource for this post.


Scheduled Passengers Carried (International + Domestic)
Rank Airline Total Passengers
1 Delta Air Lines 129,433,000
2 Southwest Airlines 129,087,000
3 China Southern Airlines 100,683,000
4 United Airlines 90,439,000
5 American Airlines 87,830,000
6 Ryanair 86,370,000
7 China Eastern Airlines 66,174,000
8 easyJet 62,309,000
9 Lufthansa 59,850,000
10 Air China 54,577,000
Busiest Airports By Passenger Traffic (2015)
Rank  Airport Country IATA Code Total Passengers
1  Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport United States ATL 22,746,009
2 Beijing Capital International Airport China PEK 21,663,240
3 Dubai International Airport United Arab Emirates DXB 19,606,327
4 Tokyo Haneda Airport Japan HND 18,053,930
5 Los Angeles International Airport United States LAX 16,416,281
6 London Heathrow Airport United Kingdom LHR 16,364,246
7 Hong Kong International Airport China HKG 16,328,000
8 O'Hare International Airport United States ORD 16,258,025
9 Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport United States DFW 14,487,751
10 Suvarnabhumi Airport Thailand BKK 14,139,314


Life-Long Learner, Explorer, & Web Developer. Currently a Software Engineer at Jazz.

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