How they are chosen and what they are used for

Have you ever wondered when travelling by plane what airport codes are for? The combination of letters on your boarding pass identifies your origin and destination airports. But, how are they selected?

At present, there are over 20,000 airports with commercial traffic and cargo around the world; This created the need to establish a system permitting the precise and quick recognition of each of them. The activities of airports are divided into two different operations.

There’s, on the one hand, commercial activity governed by airport’s IATA codes. This encompassed facilities from check-in desks to boarding gates, as well as restaurants, basically, everything relating to providing a service to passengers.

On the other hand, there is the sector that deals with airplane operations, governed by ICAO codes.

Airport IATA codes

The International Air Transport Association, IATA, is the world organisation that comprises all the airline companies.

Its main task is to promote measures to foster cooperation among airlines and the efficiency of air transportation. In order to do so, IATA codes were created and are made up of a combination of three capital letters.

The objective was for each airport to have its own IATA code so it would be unmistakably identified but due to aviation’s continuous growth, out of the 20,000 codes there are, about 300 are already repeated.

As mentioned earlier, there is no inconvenience or risk of them being mixed up as the IATA code is only used for passengers and not for internal operations or navigation.

The IATA code is what is shown in flight search engines, documentation and boarding passes or in checked in luggage labels.

How are IATA airport codes made up?

There are different ways to choose airport IATA codes.

In some instances, they refer to the capital of the province. For example, the IATA code of the airport in Asturias refers to the city of Oviedo and is OVD.

In others, the IATA code refers to the historical name of the city in which the airport is located, such as in the case of San Sebastián or Easo; its name originates from the old roman city of Oiasso whose code is EAS. Or it may just be an abbreviation of the name of the city, as in the case of SDR for the airport of Santander.

Finally, there are other instances in which the IATA code letters do not correspond at all with any of the above, such as SVQ for the airport of Seville or AGP for Malaga’s airport. It is simply a choice of random letters when the most similar combination for the name of the city is already in use by another airport.

Airport ICAO codes

The International Civil Aviation Organisation, or ICAO, is in charge of developing the principles and techniques of air navigation and promoting air transport growth. (For further information see our post: what is ICAO).

ICAO created a rules system so that unique codes could be generated for each airport. Let’s look at these in further detail below.

How are ICAO codes formed?

ICAO codes are made up of four letters. Each of them carries meaning:

The first letter refers to the geographical region the airport is located in. Southern European countries, such as Spain, Portugal, France or Italy are allocated an L whereas northern countries like UK, Denmark or Switzerland have an E assigned. Moreover, South America is given a letter K or Australia, to give another example, has a Y.

The second ICAO code letter specifies the country. E for Spain (España), F for France or D for Germany (Deutschland).

Finally, the last two letters refer to the actual airport: MG for Malaga airport or BL for Barcelona.

Additionally, in Spain we have various exceptions, for example:

  • In the Canary Islands, the first two letters are GC and in Ceuta and Melilla, they are GE.
  • Gibraltar airport, despite being British territory, carries an L because of its southern European location.

What airport codes do pilots use?

Pilots, as well as air controllers, use the ICAO code in their day to day as there are never two identical ICAO codes.

Additionally, once you know how the code is made up, you can find out, without a doubt, which airport youre flying to.

Following are some more examples of ICAO codes in Spain:

  • LEAX – La Axarquía Airport
  • LEGR – Granada Airport
  • LEZL – Seville Airport
  • LXGB – Gibraltar Airport
  • GCXO – Tenerife Norte Airport
  • LEPA – Palma de Mallorca
  • LEXJ – Santander Airport
  • LETO – Torrejón de Ardoz Air base

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