© 2016 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
When it comes to airports, "When you've seen one, you've seen them all" hardly applies. They range from a single, small hut manned only a short time each day, to small cities open 24x7! And many of them provide places to eat, drink, sleep, shop, get a massage, and pray. [BTW, I'm of an age where I knew the word aerodrome before I knew the word airport.]
Looking at my flight log, in my 46+ years of air travel, I've spent time in 166 different airports, which sounds a lot, but isn't when you consider how many thousands there are in the world. Those airports were spread around 51 different countries or territories. I've had more than 1,380 point-to-point flights, many of them out only, many in-only, and quite a few for a short layover. That's about 30/year all told, but as I hardly flew in the first eight of those years, the annual count is closer to 40, which is one every nine days. I've also spent more than 500 8-hour days-worth of time getting to, getting from, or being at airports. At 50 working weeks/year, that's about 2 years.
In this installment, I'll comment on some of the airports through which I've passed.
[For details of my flight log, runway designations, and the phonetic alphabet used by air-traffic controllers and pilots, click here.]
As commercial air travel became popular, an international system for naming airports became necessary. (We don't want to confuse San Jose, California, with San Jose, Costa Rica, for example.) The system you see used on your luggage tags is the 3-character alphabetic IATA code from the International Air Transport Association. This allows for 17,576 (as in 26 to the third power) possibilities. [If you've ever had such a tag read LTB, that probably meant "Lose This Bag". Just kidding, or am I?] An alternate system—hey, you gotta have competition, right?—is the 4-character, alphanumeric ICAO code from the International Civil Aviation Organization. Throughout this article, I'll use the IATA code only.
For a list of airports and their IATA and ICAO codes, click here.
The vast majority of the codes for the airports I have visited are quite obvious, when looking at the English-language spelling of the cities/areas in which they occur. For example, ADL (Adelaide, Australia), DEN (Denver, Colorado, US), KUL (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), OSL (Oslo, Norway), VIE (Vienna, Austria), and ZRH (Zurich, Switzerland). That said, there are more than a few that are not at all obvious, cryptic, or seemingly arbitrary. For example: ARN (Stockholm, Sweden), OOL (Gold Coast/Coolongatta, Australia), ORD (Chicago's O'Hare, Illinois, US), and YYZ (Toronto, Ontario, Canada).
In the early days of flight in the US, numerous aerodromes had weather stations, and the US National Weather Service had a 2-letter code to indicate US cities. Some US airports adopted that 2-letter code, and added a suffix X to make three letters. Examples include LAX (Los Angeles, California) and PHX (Phoenix, Arizona).
Now Canada has a fairly simple scheme: All Canadian airports have an IATA code that begins with Y, except when they don't; got it? The system seemed quite regular until I stumbled on a handful of radicals daring to begin with other letters. (Actually, there is "some method in their madness"; the Y prefix indicates, "Yes, this airport is near a weather station".)
Some Airports I have Graced
The airports listed here are in English order of their IATA code:
ACV – Arcata/Eureka, California, US: As Wikipedia states, "The airport was built by the United States Navy during World War II to test defogging systems." Well, I got to experience firsthand the thick fog there when my departure was delayed, and I missed my connection in SFO.
ADL – Adelaide, Australia: This was the departure point of my first-ever jet flight, on a Being 727, for a 1-week business trip to SYD (Sydney), at the ripe old age of 17! (It's possible that I flew in a light aircraft prior to that, but I have no memory of doing so.)
AKL – Auckland, New Zealand: I've been to NZ once, for a couple of hours, on a layover to Australia. And this airport was almost all I saw of that country, except for a bit on takeoff as dawn was breaking. Apparently, there is more to NZ than AKL!
AMS – Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Known as Schiphol, it is built where there used to be a large lake, on which ships sometimes sank during storms. (The word Schiphol means "ship grave".) Here, more than 20 years ago, I was subjected to a very long "interview" by a gate agent who wasn't at all convinced I was travelling on business, just because I was wearing hiking clothes and carrying a full-size backpack.
AYQ – Yulara, Australia: My first time in and out of this airport was on a small, private plane. At that time, there was no manned air-traffic control, just a set of rules as to how pilots announced themselves and gave priority to larger planes. Now that jet traffic is common, it's became a real airport. Yulara is the town that serves the very popular tourist destinations of Ayers Rock and The Olgas, which are now known by their Aboriginal names Uluru and Kata Tjuta, respectively. If you are looking for a unique experience to a remote place, this would be a candidate.
BGR – Bangor, Maine, US: This airport rates Number 4 on my list of frequented airports with around 90 times in and out. [For many years, I worked on a computer system for a paper company in central Maine.] Commercial aviation shares the 11,400-foot runway with the refueling-tanker wing of the Maine Air National Guard. It is a common jumping-off point for military passenger charter flights to/from Europe. If you want a reason not to go to BGR, see the movie The Langoliers from the book by Stephen King.
BOM – Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India: Due to its location with respect to the world's time zones, long-distance flights often arrive and depart here in the very early hours of the morning. I well remember having to go through numerous "layers" of staff, each of which seemed to have no purpose but to pass me along to the next person. (Perhaps it was a way to keep people employed!) A large and rather imposing security guard eyed a nice ballpoint pen I had in my possession, and he seemed to suggest it would be good if I made a gift of it to him. I hesitated, and after a very long pause, he offered to swap it with a third-rate pen he had. In the interests of getting into the country, I agreed.
BOS – Boston, Massachusetts, US: This airport rates Number 2 on my list of frequented airports with around 200 times in and out. [For some years, I provided services to a company in the area; I also changed planes there when flying to/from BGR.] At one time, Boston had a problem with teenage pregnancy, and on the walls of some of the jet ways was a poster showing a very-pregnant girl, with the following text: "Make sure your daughter learns how to add and subtract before she learns how to multiply!" This airport is right next to the sea, and fog and/or low cloud sometimes occurs, and when one looks out the window one can only see water. On one approach, the pilot aborted the landing and then announced, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we seem to have missed the runway; I'm going to go around and try that again!" My long-term consulting client in Central Maine had its own twin-engine, prop plan, which sometimes flew to BOS. I rode it several times, once sitting in the co-pilot's seat. Landing at a major international airport and seeing it from the cockpit is much more interesting than seeing out a side window when sitting in the back.
CAJ – Canaima, Venezuela: This is the airport that serves the area around Angel Falls, the tallest in the world. Now to visit the falls, one might well expect to have to pay serious money to a local tour group, and that certainly was possible, if one wanted to get there by river. However, the friendly Captain of my Avensa airlines Boeing 727-100 gave us a treat. He flew low over the airport (presumably to let the staff know he was in the area) and then headed for the falls. As we raced up the valley at the same level as the point at which the falls began, he asked those passengers on the other side of the plane to take their seats, as he was going to do a U-turn and come back, so they could get a good look out their windows! [The 727-100 was the original, short-body version, but with its large engines, seemed to me like a VW Bug with a 12-cylinder engine! Having been discontinued in 1972, that model was no longer used in first-world countries.]
CGN – Cologne-Bonn, Germany: I went there once, but I didn't actually arrive by plane! I had a ticket from the US to CGN, via FRA (Frankfurt), which is only 85 miles away. To my surprise, the leg to CGN was actually on a train!
CPH – Copenhagen, Denmark: While it's a fine airport, for me, the highlight of flying into CPH is seeing the formation of wind turbines out in the sea. They look like "poetry in motion".
CUZ – Cuzco, Peru: This is the jumping off point for the famous Incan city of Machu Picchu. The main thing of interest is the airport's elevation, high up in the Andes at 10,860 feet (3,310 meters). While in the area, I learned firsthand about altitude sickness!
CVG – Cincinnati, Ohio: This airport is actually across the Ohio River in the state of Kentucky! It is named for nearby Covington.
DCA – Washington DC - National (now Ronald Reagan), Virginia, US: This airport rates Number 3 on my list of frequented airports with around 105 times in and out. (I've lived in the greater DC area for the past 37 years.)
DEN – Denver, Colorado, US: Originally, this was the designation of the Stapleton International Airport, but the code was reassigned to Denver International Airport when that was built. For a while, the new airport was known (at least informally) as DIA.
DMK – Don Mueang International Airport, Bangkok, Thailand: What I remember most about this airport was the large number of very short, heavily-armed soldiers on guard. It was July 1979, and the country was under military control, again. It was a bit of a surprise, but I didn't feel at all unsafe. [In 2006, a new international airport, BKK, went into service.]
EWR – Newark, New Jersey, US: This is one of the airports that serves New York City. As the US Navy reserves airport codes beginning with N, this code is made from other letters of the location's name.
EZE – Buenos Aires, Argentina: Its code comes from its being in the area of the city called Ezeiza.
FCO – Rome, Italy: I first landed at Leonardo da Vinci International in 1979. By the time we reached the end of our runway on landing, we were "way out in the vineyards", and took some 20 minutes to taxi to the terminal. It was my first time in Europe!
FRA – Frankfurt, Germany: This airport truly is a city that never sleeps! The first time I departed from there, in 1981, armed security people were very prominent, and German-Shephard dogs sniffed everybody and everything. (Think Baader-Meinhof Group/Red Army Faction.) It was a little bit intimidating. One time I arrived late and my in-coming plane went right by my out-going plane onto another terminal some distance away. By the time I got back to my next gate, my next plane had already departed, so I had to spend the night at an airport hotel. Nowadays when I depart FRA on a flight to elsewhere in Europe, the departure gate actually leads to a bus that takes the passengers a kilometer or more out to the plane.
HKG – Hong Kong: When I flew there in 1979, this code designated the old Kai Tak Airport, which is right at the tip of the Kowloon Peninsula, opposite Hong Kong Island. On takeoff or landing, one seemed to be flying between high-rise buildings. This was the destination of my first ever international flight.This code now designates the new Chek Lap Kok airport, which is located on an island some distance out of the city.
IAD – Washington DC - Dulles International, Virginia, US: This airport rates Number 1 on my list of frequented airports with around 300 times in and out. (I've lived in the greater DC area for past 37 years.) It is named for John Foster Dulles. I think that IAD might have been the first new airport designed for commercial jets. As such, it was built "way out in the country" as were many later airports. It serviced Concorde flights from London and Paris. At IAD, I once had the great pleasure of being "sniffed by a Beagle dog" that was searching among passengers and their hand luggage for fruit, vegetables and/or contraband.
ITO – Hilo, Hawaii, US: There are a number of theories about the code of this Big-Island airport. One goes like this: "Hilo Airport was called ITO after one of the first Hawaiian Airlines Hilo Airport station managers: "Mr. Ito." I flew out of there in 1982 on a plane with an unusual configuration. The front half was filled with passengers while the back half was filled with flowers (mostly orchids, I believe) headed for the US West Coast flower market.
IVL – Ivalo, Finland. This is the northernmost airport in the country, in the heart of Lapland, and it is the furthest north I've ever been. The Finnair Jet had its own retractable stairs, and the terminal was a small, log cabin. As we waited for our luggage, a large reindeer came out of the forest to welcome us and to stand still for photos.
JFK – New York City, US: This was my first stop in the US when I arrived from London in 1979. It was formerly known as IDL (Idlewild), and was renamed for President John Fitzgerald Kennedy after his assassination.
KEF – Keflavík airport,
Iceland: Previously, the main airport for Reykjavík was RKV, which is close to the city. When I visited in 1987, I landed at the new airport, but all the car rental agencies and the hotel were still at the old airport, so the airport bus shuttled me between the two airports. During the ride, I recall seeing a sign for a "Texas BBQ" place. Later, I learned that KEF is shared with a US Air Force base. [RKV remains in service as a domestic airport.]
LAS – Las Vegas, Nevada, US: Only here would you find slot machines in the terminals, and you can hear them as soon as you get off the plane. I also discovered they have no airline lounges; instead, they want you there gambling while you wait.
LCY – London City, UK: Reachable on the Docklands Light Rail from the Tube, this small airport is just the thing for a quick trip to the Continent. The single runway is on a long, narrow dock between two waterways.
LGW – London Gatwick, UK: My one flight out of there was in 1979, to New York City in the US. It was on one of Sir Freddy Laker's "SkyTrain" DC10s. He was a pioneer of "no-frills" flying, and the flight cost US$99. Passengers were encouraged to bring along their own food.
LHR – London Heathrow, UK: This place is huge, and I can imagine it being intimidating to the novice traveler. The quick/expensive way to/from the city is on the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station. The slow/cheaper way is on the Piccadilly Tube line.
LIN – Milan Linate, Italy: Known for fog, I had a flight out that was delayed sufficiently that I missed my connection in Frankfurt to the US. During one trip there, the taxi driver asked me if I was in town for the fashion show. I looked down at my hiking clothes and boots and wondered just what sort of a fashion show it was.
MCO – Orlando, Florida, US: This is the jumping-off point for Disney World, Cape Kennedy, and many other interesting places to visit. It was formerly the McCoy Strategic Air Command (SAC) air-force base. Soon after I got my first video camera, I shot video on a family vacation at Disney World. Not being used to having a large camera bag, I accidentally left it on the mobile lounge that took me to my plane. In a panic, I went back to the main terminal where someone had turned it in.
MEL – Melbourne, Australia: Also known as Tullamarine Airport. In early 1970, before I got my first professional job, I worked a while at a plastics-extrusion company. One of its contracts was to make the tinted, hemispherical covers for all the light poles around the airport. I was the one making them.
MEX – Mexico City, Mexico: What a polluted city! The clouds were quite brown/yellow as I descended to this airport.
NAN – Nadi, Fiji: Pronounced "Nandi", it's at the complete other end of the main island, a long way from the capital, Suva. On my flight out to Australia, I met a very drunk, young man from Germany who insisted I correct his English if he made any mistakes. When I questioned him about this he told me that he had been travelling for many months with a large wooden trunk, and someone had told him the English name for a large wooden box was a coffin. So, he'd been telling people he was traveling around the Pacific with his coffin!
NRT – Tokyo Narita, Japan: This was a very controversial construction project in the 1960s with many—even violent—demonstrations. As I usually stay in/near Ueno Park, I find the (private) Keisei train to Ueno very convenient and not-so-busy. There's an express or local version, with different prices. When NRT was built, its international flights took over from HND, and most domestic/short-haul flights stayed at HND. However, both airports now support both international and regional flights.
OGG – Maui's Kahului Airport, Hawaii, US: The code comes from a well-respected pilot called Bertram J. Hogg.
OOL – Gold Coast, Australia: The code is derived from the airport's former name, Coolangatta.
ORD – Chicago O'Hare, Illinois, US: The world's busiest airport—a title it generally alternates with ATL (Atlanta, Georgia, US)— w.r.t the number of takeoffs and landings, it was my home base for my first year in the US. It has eight runways. Formerly called Orchard Field Airport.
ORF – Norfolk, Virginia, US: The US Navy reserves airport codes starting with "N", hence the "ORF".
OSL – Oslo, Norway: After I'd checked my luggage for a flight to London, at security, I discovered I had a Swiss-Army knife in my carry-on bag. Fortunately, it was a slow Saturday afternoon, and the friendly security man smiled and said he "could take care of it" and he did! He found a cardboard box, put the knife in it, got my flight information from my ticket, put that on a label, and told me to pick it up in London. Later, at the check-in gate, the gate agent called for a Mr. Jaeschke to come to the counter. My first thought was that it was something to do with my knife. But no, the agent just wanted to tell me he was upgrading me to Business Class, if that was OK. Sure enough, box and knife came out on the carousel at LHR.
PEK – Beijing City, China: Named after Peking, the former English name for that city. In 2015, I unexpectedly took off from there to the US two days in a row! On the first day, an hour into the flight, the pilot informed us there was a mechanical problem and that we'd be turning around and going back. After hours waiting on the ground, I finally got to a nearby hotel. The next day's flight left without incident, so five weeks later, I went back and tried it again. (Yes, I really did have two conferences there, five weeks apart!)
PER – Perth, Australia: In 2003, which was well after 9/11, I went through security with a large VHS video camera in its bag. The checker couldn't tell what was in the camera bag, so he asked another agent to check it. When I informed him it contained a spare, solid, old-style battery, he said "No problem" and waved me through without actually looking in the bag. I was stunned at his complete lack of attention to detail.
PNS – Pensacola/Gulf Coast, Florida, US: As my flight approached, it appeared that half the area's house roofs were bright blue. And as we got lower, I could see they were large tarpaulins (presumably provided by the US Army and/or emergency services) after Hurricane Ivan had been through.
PUQ – Punta Arenas, Chile: This is at the southern-most tip of continental South America, and is the jumping-off point to the Andean glacier national parks.
RGL – Rio Gallegos, Argentina: This was the endpoint of my 10-day trip across the Patagonia. In the weeks preceding, a volcano had erupted and its ash had caused the cessation of flight from this airport. However, by the time I got there, it was operational.
SAB – Saba, Northern Netherlands Antilles: As Wikipedia states, "The airport … has one of the shortest commercial runways in the world … flanked on one side by high hills, with cliffs that drop into the sea at both ends." As such, only Short TakeOff and Landing (STOL) propeller aircraft can use it. It's built on the only flat piece of land on the small island. And yes, the guy who checks you in and carries the bags to the plane, is also your pilot!
SAN – San Diego, California, US: One day as I was driving on the road between the airport and the sea, a barrier came around to block traffic. As I looked to the water, I saw a propeller-driven, amphibious, passenger plane drive up a concrete ramp and then cross the road to the airport. Not something you see every day!
SNA – Santa Ana/Orange County, California, US: Also known as "John Wayne Airport". A nine-foot bronze statue of him dressed in western garb, complete with 6-shooter, stands at the entrance. Having seen it, I can cross it off my list of "10 things to do before I die!"
SPU – Split, Croatia: This is the jumping-off-point for those heading south down the Dalmatian Coast.
SXM – St. Maarten, Northern Netherlands Antilles: It is officially called Princess Juliana International Airport, which puzzled me, as it was not built before Juliana became Queen of the Netherlands. However, when she abdicated in favor of her daughter, Beatrix, she took back the title Princess, and the airport was named after her later on. Aircraft Spotters love to stand outside the fence at the end of the runway and watch wide bodies take off right over their heads.
TLV – Tel Aviv, Israel: I remember it well for two reasons: The approach for landing and the security on departure. I was on a Lufthansa Boeing 747 and we were only hundreds of feet above the runway when the pilot pushed all four engine throttles open and we took off and circled around to land safely on the same runway some 15 minutes later. No explanation was given, but all I could think off was that someone was firing rockets at the airport! On out-bound flights, it's normal to be at the airport at least three hours before a flight, and I used most of that time getting through security. I think part of the reason was that I'd come in that morning from neighboring Jordan. My luggage was X-rayed every possible way and my hand luggage checked, re-checked, and checked again.
TXL – Berlin Tegel, Germany: It is scheduled to be closed when BER (Berlin Brandenburg Airport) opens. Along with THF (Tempelhof)—which is now decommissioned—it played a major role in the Berlin Airlift.
YYC – Calgary, Alberta, Canada: I was taking off in a Boeing 727 when there was a very loud "bang", after which the engines slowed down. The Captain informed us, "due to a high cross-wind, the top engine's compressor had stalled, so I'm going to restart it and try again". From the looks on their faces, I think many of the passengers were thinking, "Maybe we should go back to the terminal and find another plane!"
As to which city/metro area has the most commercial airports, I think London, UK, wins. It has Gatwick, Heathrow, London City, Luton, Southend, and Stansted.
As I was researching this article, I found that Wilkins Runway in the Australian Antarctic Territory rated an ICAO code, but not one for IATA, so what is used on luggage tags for baggage that goes there? Perhaps that's where lost luggage goes!
By the way, if you are travelling with kids and there is the possibility of being at an airport for many hours, bring something along for them to do! In my family's case, we travelled with a deck of UNO cards. And once all the bored kids in our part of the terminal saw how much fun we were having, they came over and joined us. It was like an UNO version of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, except I had no desire to take any of the kids home with me.
And just in case you were wondering, there is an airport AAA (in
French Polynesia). However, I couldn't find a ZZZ.