Do you know how airports are given their letter codes?

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Airport Codes

Have you ever wondered what the three or four-letter acronym code on your plane ticket or luggage tag means, or how they are decided?

Every airport in the world is given a three-letter code from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and a four-letter code from International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). They are used to distinguish airports to ensure there is no confusion between cities and countries for airlines and aviation professionals, such as air traffic controllers and pilots. ICAO and IATA are the two official entities that issue airport codes, but their codes are different and have different uses.

They are generally shortcodes as space is often limited on documents such as boarding passes, luggage tags and other flight information, such as scheduled paperwork. These codes are useful for radio communications too, as communication difficulties between different languages can be eased by transmitting a code instead.

ICAO Codes:

The ICAO airport codes are also known as location indicators and are mainly used by those operating or flying aircraft, such as pilots and air traffic controllers; in charts, on-board systems and in communications. These four-letter codes are also used to identify other aviation facilities such as are control centres, weather stations and international flight service stations.

ICAO codes relate to a geographical location and many have the first letter referring to a larger region, like a continent, with the second demonstrating a country within that region. The following two letters are two-letter abbreviations based on the continent. Some large countries have their own first-code letter too; such as Canada, who have ‘C’ at the beginning of their ICAO codes.

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)

IATA Codes:

IATA codes are used primarily for passengers only and not for operations, and referred to as location identifiers primarily used to identify airports (and also bus stations, railway stations, ferry terminals and helipads), that are used for intermodal travel, and are often based on the first three letters of the city the airport is located, or the airport name. Examples of this are John F. Kennedy Airport in New York (JFK), and London Heathrow Airport (LHR).

However, there are some instances where the letters do not correspond at all and it is simply a choice of letters, usually done when the most similar combination of letters is already in use, as seen by GEG for Spokane International Airport.

The same differences for Canada occur in IATA codes as they do with ICAO codes, and Canadian airports often have codes beginning with Y.

International Air Transport Association (IATA)

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