There are plenty of airport codes around the world that are good for a laugh. Think of most words you’d avoid uttering in polite company and there’s probably an airport code that at least resembles it. FUK may be the prime example. Or there’s the fact that you could fly nonstop from SIN to HEL. Fresno is FAT and Safford, Arizona is just SAD. But lucky for the adults among us, today we’re not here to laugh at airport codes. Instead we’re going to look at some codes whose origins aren’t immediately obvious. In many cases they turn out to be full of history and trivia. (For a related dive into aviation history, see this recent post on the origins of airline codes.)

American Airlines ORD O'Hare Chicago origin airport codes history
An American Airlines 737-800 takes off from Chicago O’Hare (ORD)

ORD – Chicago O’Hare

Chicago’s main airport is one of the more famous global hubs with a code that at first glance makes no sense. “ORD” is a nod to the airfield’s history, which started its life as Orchard Field Airport (OrchaRD) in 1945, at the site where Douglas Corporation had a wartime aircraft assembly plant. That name was short-lived. In 1949 the airport was renamed for Lt. Cmdr. Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare, a naval aviator who died in WWII. In fact Butch O’Hare was from St. Louis and never actually lived in Chicago, according to St. Louis Magazine. His father, however, was an important figure in Chicago who helped the IRS put Al Capone in jail – and Butch was often around town before the war.

FRU – Bishkek 

Head to Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan, and you’ll find the airport is named Manas International. Manas, as it happens, is a character from an epic poem, revered as a fierce warrior and great unifier, and hugely famous in Kyrgyzstan. Most experts say he never actually existed, but either way his name is found all over the place in the Central Asian nation. So then, why FRU? For that we have to dig back into the Soviet era, when Kyrgyzstan was part of the USSR. In that time Bishkek was known as Frunze, named for Mikhail Frunze, a Bolshevik leader and Red Army commander who was born in modern-day Kyrgyzstan. If that isn’t useful trivia then I don’t know what is.

MSY – New Orleans

Most who’ve traveled there know that the New Orleans airport is called Louis Armstrong International. But the code MSY clearly has nothing to do with the jazz legend. In the old days the airport’s name was Moisant Field, located in the Moisant Stock Yards (hence MSY). It was named in honor of famed aviator John Moisant, who was killed near the site of the future airport when he was reportedly caught in a gust of wind and ejected from his plane. Many airports are named after aviation pioneers who died pushing the limits of aviation, but few are actually situated where they died.

Hawaiian Airlines Hawaii OGG Maui Kahului A321 history airport codes
A Hawaiian Airlines A321neo takes off from Maui’s Kahului Airport (OGG)

OGG – Maui

Most Hawaiian airport codes look like the name of the city they’re in. KOA for Kona, HNL for Honolulu, LIH for Lihue. OGG is the odd one out. Though if you fly through there, you may notice a small exhibit dedicated to its namesake, Captain Jimmy Hogg. The airport itself is simply called Kahului Airport, after the largest city on Maui, but Hogg was important enough to Hawaiian aviation that his name ended up in the airport code. Hogg flew the first ever transpacific flight for Hawaiian Airlines.

TNM – Villa Las Estrellas, Antarctica

TNM earns a special place in this list despite its obscurity because it’s the only airport in Antarctica with an IATA code. The code comes from Teniente (Lieutenant) Rodolfo Marsh Martin, whom the airport is named after. Lieutenant Marsh was an aviation pioneer in Chile in the 1930s, who died when his plane crashed enroute from Puerto Montt to Punta Arenas.

IPC – Easter Island

The code IPC doesn’t actually refer to history. The IPC refers simply to Isla de Pascua, the Chilean name for the island and – you guessed it – Spanish for Easter Island. But the people of this remote island know it as Rapa Nui, its original name from the time before colonizers arrived and eventually made it a part of Chile. The island has been through a lot. In the 1860s Peruvian slavers arrived and wreaked havoc. Chile annexed the island in 1888. After that a Scottish-owned wool company leased the island and effectively exercised sovereign control over it, confining the people of the island to the main town – with the rest reserved for sheep. In the 1950s Chile took it back and in the 60s Rapa Nui’s residents became Chilean citizens. The situation remains politically complex, if relatively stable. The airport, meanwhile, is one of the world’s most pleasant.

LATAM LAN 787 Dreamliner Easter Island Rapa Nui Isla de Pascua IPC airport codes history
A LAN (LATAM) 787-9 as seen from the outdoor waiting area at Easter Island (IPC). Photo: Gabriel Leigh
Featured image © Alexey Ignatyev

Gabriel Leigh grew up on long-haul flights and has been fascinated by airplanes since he can remember. Now based in Sweden, he writes about transport, travel and more for publications like The New York Times, Monocle and Forbes.