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The Importance of An Airport’s Name (Guest Post)

I’m still hanging out, getting to know my son, so here’s another guest post for you. This time it’s an interesting look at airports and their names.


The name of an airport: we see it when we book reservations, on billboards as we cruise down the highway, on signs directing us towards the terminals, and we hear it constantly over the airport’s PA and on the airplane itself. As frequent fliers, we try to tune it out and focus on the three-letter airport code—it’s a daunting task given how often we’re exposed to the actual name.

But there are reasons why air travelers are constantly inundated with the full name of the airport. First, an airport’s name is the largest free advertisement in its attraction toolbox. It’s plastered everywhere, and mostly not at the airport’s expense. Flight search engines use the airport’s full name in search boxes, airlines use the airport’s full name in itineraries, and cities use the airport’s full name on signs on highways and roads. With this much expensive real estate freely displaying the airport’s name, it’s no wonder that this component is integral for attracting passengers. Second, the name happens to tie in nicely with the region’s economic development strategy. Not only is it important for funneling more passengers through an airport’s gates and services, but it also is important for the region the airport serves.

Take the example of what happened recently in Bozeman, Montana, where the name of its airport was recently changed from Gallatin Field Airport to Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport at Gallatin Field. Not only does the new name include “Bozeman,” the largest city the airport serves, and “international,” even though the airport does not yet have a customs facility, but also “Yellowstone” was added. The airport, which is approximately 90 miles from Yellowstone National Park, changed its name to better compete with other airports that serve the park (Yellowstone Airport in West Yellowstone, Montana which is just a couple miles from the park; Jackson Hole Airport in Jackson Hole, Wyoming which is approximately 47 miles from the park; and Yellowstone Regional Airport in Cody, Wyoming which is approximately 52 miles from the park).

Yellowstone Airports

Even though none of these airports are actually located in Yellowstone, their names all work to advertise their proximity to this popular destination. Numerous other airports utilize this strategy of including a nearby destination in part of their names: Fresno Yosemite International Airport, which is located in Fresno, CA, is approximately 60 miles from the park; and the airports that serve Washington, DC (Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Washington Dulles International Airport, and Baltimore Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport) that all use Washington in their name yet none are actually located in the city.

However, not every airport that claims to utilize this strategy actually does so. Last year the airport that serves Budapest, Hungary changed its name from the Budapest Ferihegy International Airport to the Budapest Liszt Ferenc International Airport. With a new terminal opening at the airport and the country taking over the EU presidency, the national government claimed that a name change was necessary to be more descriptive and more attractive to European travelers—after all, who has ever heard of Ferihegy? To further support the government’s cause, they elicited the support of the population, naming the airport after the country’s musical hero, Franz Liszt, who is widely known and celebrated throughout Europe and the world. Throughout the negotiations, the government made the case that changing the airport’s name would better promote the region during such a crucial time and in the future. The problem is that it is hard to imagine that naming an airport after a prominent figure would actually increase passenger traffic—is Washington/National attractive to passengers because it’s now named after Ronald Reagan or is it because it’s mere minutes from the city center? While the name change in Budapest might promote Hungarian culture, it certainly does little to increase growth for the airport or the region.

An airport’s name is clearly an important asset, much like the names of sport stadiums in the U.S. Airports use their names as an advertisement to promote passenger growth as well as the region’s wider development. Sports stadiums lease or sell their names as an additional source of revenue. If airport finances get much worse, maybe we’ll start seeing corporate sponsorship there, as well—who knows, perhaps the GM Detroit International Airport or the Exxon Mobil Dallas International Airport will be on the next billboard you pass?

Jacob Kuipers is an economic policy consultant who has lived in Vermont, Washington, DC, Montana, Boston, Budapest, and Cleveland over the past five years. His current clients include the U.S. government, the Harvard Business School, and economic development organizations. He is a student pilot and an airplane enthusiast. You can reach him at jacob /dot/ a /dot/ kuipers /at/ gmail /dot/ com.

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