Location Identifiers

Esoterica and arcane shorthand. Aviation is an endeavor of brevity—not in training or maintenance, but in execution. If you fly in the system you're going to learn something of a second language. There are abbreviations or acronyms for everything. In ATC, it's primarily what we call Location Identifiers, or identifiers, for short. Almost all airports and all NAVAIDS (navigational aids—see, I can't even get through this explanation without using an acronym) have one. Some are simple and even self explanatory (JFK), others have an obsucre explanation, and some are just plain arbitrary.

I'm not going to print the whole list, as it's several hundred pages of very small print in multiple columns of an FAA handbook. When I started, they gave us a list of 330 that we had to learn in a few days. I've estimated that by the time I retired I had a working knowledge in excess of 1500, although I don't really have a way to quantify that.

I'll be using identifiers throughout this site. As and if I remember to, I'll provide the real name. Sometimes I won't. They are such a part of the working language of the controller that I don't even realize sometimes when I'm using them, even now, nineteen years after I retired.

Let's cover some easy ones—if you've watched any TV or movies in the last thirty years, you're almost certain to know that LAX is Los Angeles. MIA is Miami, MSP is Minneapolis (St. Paul—see, I told you some were almost self explanatory), DFW is Dallas/Ft. Worth, DEN is Denver, and so on. SEA shouldn't be too hard (Seattle), nor should SLC (Salt Lake City), or ABQ (Albequerque). Equally easy would be BOS (Boston), PHX (Phoenix), JAX (Jacksonville, FL), and ATL (Atlanta).

Others are obvious once you know the secret. For example, ABE is the identifier for Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton (PA), airport. MBS is for the Midland-Bay City-Saginaw (MI), and TRI is for the Tri-Cities airport at Bristol (VA & TN)-Johnson City-Kingsport (TN). Columbia, SC's airport (CAE) is located in the suburb of Cayce, and Kansas City's international airport (MCI) is called Mid-Continent.

And then there are those that seem to make no sense—until you get the background. St. Petersburg, FL (PIE) is located in Pinellas County. New Orleans' air carrier facility (MSY ) used to be Moisant Airport (but they do also have the Lakefront airport of NEW). Washington National is DCA but why is Dulles International Airport IAD? When I first hired on, Dulles was DIA, but in those days of hand written strips, too many people with writing like mine wound up morphing DIA into DCA which naturally got passed along by an innocent assistant and after a few embarrasing episodes Dulles was changed to IAD.

The average enthusiast visiting isn't going to care about military airports, but I will say that identifiers for Air Force bases are generally logically based on the name of the nearest or principal town—VPS-Eglin AFB near Valparaiso, FL, FFO-Patterson AFB in Fairfield, OH, WRI-McGuire AFB in Wrightstown, NJ. Incidentally, most Air Force bases are named after deceased AF pilots.

On the other hand, while Navy/Marine Corps identifiers generally start with “N” they hardly ever bear any resemblance whatsoever to any named nearby installation. I post these solely for academic interest: NGU-Norfolk Naval Air Station, NKT-Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station, NPA, Pensacola's NAS, NBC-Beaufort, SC, MCAS, NXX-Willow Grove, PA, NAS, NIP-Jacksonville NAS, NZC-Jacksonville's Cecil Field (now closed), and so on. Straight memorization was the only solution to them.

But you're really wanting to know about ORD, aren't you? Well, when it came time to displace Midway (MDW) as Chicago's principal airport (the age of large jets doomed MDW which has no room for expansion) the WWII era military field called Orchard Field in the Northwestern suburbs of Chicago was selected. ORD was the logical choice (and it may have already been so assigned). Chicago native son Butch O’Hare was also the logical namesake as a war hero and Medal of Honor recipient. The near confluence of letters in the names was just a coincidence. There's no “D” in O’Hare, which leads to the confusion. But simply stated, the identifier, ORD, having come first, isn't based on O’Hare's name at all.

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Last updated: 13 November 2016