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How to get an IATA code for your airline or airport

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We’ve written before about all the fun there is to be had with IATA codes for airlines and airports. Not only are they great for their occasionally unusual origin stories, they also provide a useful shorthand for avgeeks. For example: “I’m flying BA from LHR to LAX“. (Never mind that autocorrect may wreak havoc with some of these.) But how do these codes actually come to be? And can you simply go and get one if you decide to start an airline or airport? The answer is that it’s actually not that difficult to get your own IATA code, provided you have a few thousand US dollars, a real airline or airport, and proof it’s not all made up. When it comes to starting your airport, most likely getting the code will be the easy part. Here’s a look at how to go about getting an IATA code of your very own.

airlines airplanes parked Victorville
Aircraft parked at Victorville, awaiting the end of the pandemic. Most of these airlines have gone through the process of getting an IATA code. Can you name them all?

Apply on the web

IATA has a useful customer portal online where you can do all sorts of things, including apply for an airline code (the two-letter variety, such as AA) or airport location code (the three-letter one, such as ARN for Stockholm Arlanda.) There’s a lot more you can apply for there and many more codes to have fun with, such as four-letter designators for types of meals and more. IATA has it covered. But here we’ll focus only on those first two.

Getting a code for your airline

If you have a new airline and you need an IATA code, it all starts with an application form. You can access that by signing up for a user account within the customer portal. Note that applying for the code will cost $5,700. There are lower fees for IATA members, but that membership is pricey too. There is a $15,000 application fee, a $15,000 enrollment fee once accepted, and then annual dues that currently run $12,857.

how to get an IATA code airline airport
Getting an IATA code for your airline requires you to have a functioning airline with planes and seats, etc

Now, the more difficult part may be having an airline that actually qualifies. You’ll need to have an AOC to start. That’s an Air Operator’s Certificate, and it’s a basic requirement for having an airline that carries passengers. It’s also not easy to obtain. There is an extended multi-stage process in place to ensure your airline operation is reputable and safe. In fact an AOC is such a valuable document that failed airlines have been sold primarily for their AOC to be repurposed and a new airline built on top of it. There is variation from country to country, but the full list of AOC requirements can be found here.

You’ll need to prove it

Beyond that, you’ll need proof that your schedules are published, and not just written down in a notebook. That likely means working with OAG or Cirium to ensure they’re made official. If you’re running a charter outfit or similar and not publishing schedules, you’ll need to jump through some other hoops. That includes proving that either 1) you have an interline agreement with an IATA airline, 2) you participate in one of a few designated shared telecommunications facilities or 3) you participate in the “A4A Interline Traffic Agreement (ITA)”. Also needed will be official documents of incorporation, a breakdown of company shareholders, proof that you have an agreement with a computerized reservation system (CRS), and certified translations if anything isn’t in English to start with.

IATA code Kam Air
Kam Air’s IATA code is RQ.

And by the way: train, bus and ferry companies can apply for IATA codes too – provided they offer intermodal transport with an airline. The full requirements for obtaining an airline code can be found here.

Airport codes are somewhat simpler (if you have an airport)

Overhead view of Beijing’s new Daxing Airport
Beijing’s recently opened Daxing Airport (IATA code PKX). Having a photo of your airport that looks like this will help you get an IATA code.

According to IATA rules, airport owners and governments can’t actually apply for a three-letter airport code directly. Rather, an airline that intends to offer service there needs to request the code. Beyond that, it’ll be the same $5,700 fee and an application, with a few supporting materials. Aspiring airport owners may be glad to know these are less extensive than when establishing an airline. The application for a new airport code needs to include both visual proof of the location (including signage) and confirmation that a scheduled commercial operator has plans to fly there.

So if you’ve built yourself an airport and dreaming of an IATA code, good news: all you’ll really need is to convince an airline to fly there.

Featured image © Johan K
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