The Logic and Meaning Behind Airport Codes
by Thierry Pouille, Air Journey
When I started flying to the Bahamas in the early 1980s, most of my flying was done VFR. I installed one of the first panel-mounted GPS in the form of a Garmin 100. An ancient piece of equipment by today’s standards, but at the time, it was top of the line.
One day I was flying VFR towards the Abacos, Bahamas to Treasure Cay (airport code MYAT). Some boomers were showing up on the horizon, so I decided to change the destination to Marsh Harbor (MYAM). I did not enter the data properly into my GPS and I replaced the “M” with a “W.” The screen was showing “MYAW.” Since the unit was connected to the autopilot, when I pressed NAV, the plane took a 90-degree left turn towards the north. Scratching my head, I thought what’s going on? Going into a little detail I realized my mistake and corrected it.
This opened the question, who creates and assigns these airport codes for the different airports? Since the Bahamas were the background of my flying, I decided to investigate and I discovered some interesting information.
In the Bahamas Caribbean Pilot Guide, which is now owned by AOPA (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association), every airport in the Bahamas begins with the two-letters “MY,” while in the U.S., most of the large airports begin with the letter “K.” When you look closer at the Bahamas airport codes, you realize that the third letter following the “MY” is basically the first letter of the island chain name within the Bahamas.
The third letter stands for the island chain. A for Andros Island (MYAF), C for Cat Island (MYCB) or Crooked Island (MYCI), E for Eleuthera (MYEH) or Exuma (MYEF), G for Grand Bahama (MYGF), L for Long Island (MYLD), and N for Nassau (MYNN).
That also helped explain the meaning of the fourth letter in the ICAO airport codes: T in the Abacos Island chain for Treasure Cay (MYAT), M for Marsh Harbour (MYAM). S in the Exuma Island chain for Staniel Cay (MYES), A on Cat Island for Arthur’s Town (MYCA), K in Andros Island for Congo Town (MYAK). It made sense.
In the 1980s, not all of the airports were listed in the pilot guide. When we decided to go to airports not showing, such as Hawks Nest on Cat Island, it was very easy to call the airport “MY” (Bahamas), “C” because of Cat, and “H” for Hawks Nest. As time went on, we had to create new airport codes.
This piqued my interest because when you go back to the United States, and you fly commercial, the luggage tag codes show only three-letters. Where is the difference coming from? Well, the airport code with three letters was IATA which stands for International Air Transport Association created by the airlines while the airport codes are created by ICAO which is the International Civil Aviation Organization.
I started to look at the other airport codes and see if there was some correlation that would make life easier for the pilot. The list starts pretty simply. In Iceland, the two-letter code is “BI” and then the other two letters are cities – Reykjavik is BIRK and Keflavik is BIKF.
In Greenland, the two-letter code is “BG” (B because of the location in the world and G because it’s Greenland). Sondre Stromfjord Airport in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland is BGSF. Nuuk which is the capital of Greenland, (previously named Godthab) is BGGH. Kulusuk, on the east side of Greenland is BGKK, and so on.
Looking deeper, it was the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) who decided to assign regions different codes. For example, the UK starts with the letters EG (for England), followed by the name of the airport.
The three-letter airport codes are created by IATA (International Air Transport Association), not by the airlines. We’re all familiar with LAX, JFK, MIA, DFW, ATL. In Europe you’re going to see LHR, CDG, MAD, FCO, DUB and FRA. And further away you might see HKG, SYD, RIO and you can even guess what the destination is going to be.
But going back to ICAO codes, we need to understand that the first letter has been assigned by ICAO based on the location of where the airports are.
The letter K is the United States, C is Canada and E is northern Europe.
So EB is Belgium, EG is England, EN is Norway, EK is Denmark and EG is Germany.
F stands for Central and South Africa. FA is South Africa, FB is Botswana, FL is Zambia, and FY is Namibia.
G is West Africa. GN is Morocco, and GO is Senegal. H is east Africa. HE is Egypt, HK is Kenya and HD is Djibouti.
L is Southern Europe. LE is Spain (España), LF is France, LG is Greece and LP is Portugal.
M is Central America. MG for Guatemala, MP for Panama, MN for Nicaragua and MZ for Belize. An exception here, MB is Turks & Caicos.
O is the Middle East. OB is Bahrain, OE is Saudi Arabia, OO is Oman and OM is United Arab Emirates.
The letter R is further east. You’re talking about Taiwan, Japan, etc. RC is China, RJ is Japan, RK is Korea and RP is the Philippines.
S is South America. SA is Argentina, SB is Brazil, SC is Chile, SE is Ecuador and SP is Peru.
T is the East Caribbean. TA is Antigua and Barbuda, TB is Barbados, TI is the US Virgin Islands, TJ is Puerto Rico, TU is the British Virgin Islands and TX is Bermuda.
U is Russia and post-Soviet states. U is Russia, UD is Armenia, UK is Ukraine and UT is Turkmenistan.
V is South Asia. VC is Sri Lanka, VH is Hong Kong, VM is Macao, VR is the Maldives and VT is Thailand.
Y standing all by itself, is for Australia.
All of that said, we now have a better understanding when we enter a code into our GPS. There is a logic behind it when we understand the first two letters of the code and what the other ones stand for.
Some countries make it very easy, others don’t. If you look at the French codes for example: LFPB is Paris Le Bourget, LFPG is Paris De Gaulle, LFPO is Paris Orly, LFAT is Le Touquet. I don’t know where that one is coming from – LFQQ is my hometown of Lille. You look at Nice in the south of France, LFMN. You go to Ibiza in the Mediterranean, LEIB. You go to Menorca, LEMH.
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding where all of this comes from. It was created years ago by pilots to make their lives easier for the future. Exciting stories from the world of flying will be coming out in the next article! Tailwinds and blue skies!