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Airport Codes and What These Mean (Things You Need to Know)

You will often notice certain codes consisting of numbers, letters or both on your flight ticket and wonder what these mean. These codes have specific purposes or meanings that allow airports, air traffic control and airline carriers to manage their operations in an organised manner. Among these, there is one such type of code that we are going to learn about here, called an airport code.

In this blog, we will provide you in detail about what is an airport code and its uses in airports and airline carriers.

What is an Airport Code?

In air travel, an airport code is a unique code, which usually consists of three letters (IATA) and four letters (ICAO), and is used to identify each airport around the world.

Thus, a code for each airport is distinct from the other and aides in better identification by airliners and the air traffic control. So, you can also refer airport codes to as identifiers, specifically IATA code, in the aviation industry.

You can easily recognise an airport code by its unique three- or four-letter code printed on your flight ticket, flight timetable, baggage tags, etc. Also, airport codes are displayed on flight information monitors at airports along with other details.

For example, JFK is a unique airport code for the John F. Kennedy International Airport located in New York, USA. It is a standard IATA code as it contains three letters.

How did Airport Codes Originate?

The use of airport codes in the aviation industry started in the late 1930s when commercial airlines became more popular and accessible. Thus, airports began using two-letter city codes that were assigned by the National Weather Service that helped pilots identify the airports in their respective cities.

Today, instead of using just the two-letter combination, airports started using three-letter and four-letter combinations for the purpose of identification.

Also, you will notice that certain airport codes contain a letter ‘X’ at the end that has no name associated with it. For example, the U.S. city of Los Angeles has the code LAX, whereas another U.S. city Portland has the code PDX.

The reason is pretty simple. Back then, airports used only two-letter combinations for the cities that were assigned by the National Weather Service. Later, they started adding letter ‘X’ at the end of the other cities’ abbreviated code that are to be used as airport identifiers.

However, there are many airports that simply have the first three initials of their city name assigned as their airport code. For example, the U.S. state of Atlanta is assigned the airport code ‘ATL’, which uses the first three letters of its name. A few other examples include ‘BOS’ for Boston, ‘MIA’ for Miami, ‘SEA’ for Seattle and more. These are cities located in the United States.

As for airports that have names of multiple cities, such as the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, its assigned airport code is ‘DFW’, which are initials of Dallas and Forth Worth cities located in the U.S. state of Texas.

Types of Airport Codes

Basically, there are two types of airport codes which are used as a standard in the distinct identification of hundreds of airports located all over the world. These two types are:

(i) ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization)

(ii) IATA (International Air Transport Association)

The only difference between the two types of airport codes is that ICAO consists of a four-letter code, which also includes the continent or country code prefixed to the airport code, while the IATA consists of only the three-letter code for a particular airport.

ICAO codes are also referred to as location indicators. You generally use location indicators to find your flight on the airliner’s website.

How are Codes Assigned to Airports?

If you are wondering how airports get their distinct codes, then there are certain organisations that issue such codes to the respective airports all over the world.

The responsibility of assigning airport codes is basically carried out by two official entities. These entities are the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

The ICAO is administered by the United Nations (UN). Its purpose is to ensure that aviation regulations are adhered across different continents and the countries within.

The organisation assigns a four-letter code to airports across the globe. The first letter is distinct to continents and countries that is attached to the relevant airport code. For example, KFLL is a unique code for Fort-Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport located in Florida, USA. Here, the first letter ‘K’ is used to identify the continent, which is the USA, while the remaining three letters distinctly identify the airport called Fort-Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, which is located in Florida in the United States.

The IATA, on the other hand, is an airline trade association that is responsible for assigning the unique three-letter airport codes (also called IATA codes) that we see on our flight tickets. The abbreviation of the code is typically used to identify the name of the city where the airport is located or may contain the abbreviation of the airport instead of the city’s name.

For example, ‘AMS’ is the IATA code or airport code for Amsterdam Schiphol Airport. It contains the initials of the city’s name, which is Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. On the other hand, ‘JFK’ is the IATA code for John F. Kennedy International Airport. The abbreviation contains the initials of the airport and not the city where it is located, which is New York.

ICAO Airport Codes for Continents and Sub-Continents Worldwide

You may be surprised to know that each continent and country across the world is given a unique one-letter code. This letter is usually prefixed to that particular continent or country’s airport, as we saw in the example above, i.e., KFLL.

Below we have listed, in alphabetical order, the first letters of the ICAO airport code that are assigned to different continents and sub-continents across the globe.

A – Western South Pacific

B – Greenland, Iceland, and Kosovo (European Alternate)

C – Canada

D – West Africa and Maghreb (Eastern parts)

E – Northern Europe

F – Central Africa, Southern Africa, and the Indian Ocean

G – West Africa and Maghreb (Western parts)

H – East Africa and Northeast Africa

K – United States (Contiguous)

L – Southern Europe, Israel, Palestine and Turkey

M – Central America, Mexico and northern/western parts of the Caribbean

N – South Pacific and New Zealand

O – Afghanistan, Pakistan and most of Middle East (excluding Cyprus, Israel, Palestine, Turkey, and the South Caucasus)

P – U.S. North Pacific Territories and Kiribati

R – North Western Pacific (Taiwan, South Korea, Philippines and Japan)

S – South America

T – Eastern and southern parts of the Caribbean

U – Russia (excluding the Baltic states and Moldova)

V – South Asia (except Afghanistan and Pakistan), mainland Southeast Asia, Hong Kong and Macau

W – Southeast Asia (Maritime, except the Philippines)

Y – Australia

Z – Mainland East Asia

In addition, the countries that are located within these continents and sub-continents are assigned specific ICAO airport codes, also referred to as country codes, that are prefixed with the continent code for easy identification.

For example, the ICAO code for the Heathrow Airport in London, UK, is ‘EGLL’. Here, the first letter ‘E’ indicates the continent, i.e., Europe, where the country of the United Kingdom is located, which is represented with the letter ‘G’. Finally, the letters ‘LL’ signify the name of the airport, i.e., Heathrow Airport, which is located in the city of London.


Airport codes can be seen as an integral part in the aviation industry for the identification of airports throughout the world. It is also important because the air traffic control uses this code to accurately and safely manage the departure and arrival of flights from and to different airports.

As for travellers, these airport codes can be very useful, since airports and airline carriers can easily manage flights’ timetables with little to no error.

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