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

Airports, Guest Posts

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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34 comments on “The Importance of An Airport’s Name (Guest Post)

  1. Allegiant insisted that Williams Gateway airport in Mesa, AZ, change its name to something that begins with Phoenix, prior to service.

    And so it’s now Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport, and will actually serve a significant number of people this year.

    Most Americans simply don’t know where Mesa is, but do know where Phoenix is.

    1. And who conned IATA into changing Willie’s code (many locals just still call it Willie) from IWA to AZA? It’s still IWA to the FAA.

  2. I always have an issue naming something after a person who is still alive. What was wrong with Washington/National airport as a name, it seems to say it all. Why add Ronald Reagan to the name? And unless you are forced to, who exactly is calling it by it’s full name and not just ‘National’.

    But it’s true you only see the full name of something, but no one ever calls it by the full name.

    1. Agreed; it can get pretty ridiculous. When I lived in DC you could always tell who was really from there by how they called the airport – if they called it Reagan, you knew they weren’t from DC, but if they called it National, you knew they were.

  3. I think of of the worst is Manchester-Boston in New Hampshire. This title is correct only in that Boston is the closest large city to the airport. But that’s like putting an airport in Western Nebraska and using the word Omaha in the title.

    1. Yeah, I was going to mention MHT as well. I’ve actually run into travelers that discovered that there really isn’t an elegant way to get from MHT into Boston unless you left a car there.

      Then again, MHT (and PVD) are pretty popular with the Boston-area crowd as cheaper and less crowded airports.

      And since Jackson Hole was mentioned…. several years ago I was at a conference in Jackson Hole…. and about a dozen conference attendees were either no-shows or showed up more than a day late, since they found, either when arriving at the airport or enroute, that they had been booked to Jackson, MS instead of Jackson Hole…

  4. Funny you mention GM Detroit Metro Airport as Wayne County was actually considering leasing out naming rights when they opened the North Terminal and Big Blue Parking Deck right next to it.

    I think the worst was Prestwick? Ryanair calls it Glasgow Prestwick and at one point even called it London Prestwick. Ryanair is really the one to call out regarding far-fetched airport names.

    @David SF Agreed. In DC everyone calls it National or Reagan (never both). National doesn’t even need a fancy name. It’s just so convenient to DC transit and much easier to navigate than Dulles.

    1. 8 years ago while at college in london, a friend and i bought 9 euro fares to Frankfurt. or at least what we thought was frankfurt. we landed on a cold friday afternoon at a small airfield which handled a couple of flights a day. we soon discovered we were 70 miles outside of the city. it was a runway (old us military field) in the middle of rural farm land. it was frankhurt hahn airport not frankfurt-main… its like landing in rockford IL and thinking you are in chicago.

  5. I don’t know of any airports who’s names have peen privatized but one US Subway station has and makes using the system quite a bit more confusing. In Philadelphia the Pattison Station, the southern terminus of the Broad Street Subway has been sold to AT&T. This stop serves the Eagles Lincoln Financial Field and Phillies Citizen Bank Park. All references have been changed to AT&T including the announcements and destination signs on trains “This is an AT&T-bound train”. The situation is far to confusing but is an example of the extreme if it had been renamed Pattison-AT&T the sitution would be better. Imagine if to buy a flight to an airport you had to remember the corporate (not city) name just to book it? Trying to book flights to secondary airports can be confusing enough, Orange County for example seems to refereed to as that or as Santa Ana.

  6. To me some of these names almost border on false advertising. How can they use the word Yellowstone in their name when they are 90 miles away? Do they have permission from the National Park Service to use the name?

    1. The strategy can certainly come off as seeming deceitful. In the case of the Bozeman airport, I don’t think they need permission because they aren’t technically using the complete name of the park – it isn’t the Yellowstone National Park Airport after all. Also, the name is more or less in the public domain as there are lots of organizations around the world that use Yellowstone in their names, from coffee roasters to ballet companies. In addition, the Park might appreciate the naming as people traveling to Bozeman who wouldn’t initially be planning a visit to Yellowstone, might now consider a side trip. This is where an airport’s name falls into the regional economic development strategy.

  7. There are five “internatnional airports” within 60 miles on the Texas Mexico border at Brownsville, altho only one has international passenger service and 24/7 Customs (BRO). The others are MAM, REX, MFE and HRL. But the name winning game goes to the Airport that successfully branded itself as VIA… even the ID badges hanging around employees necks say VIA… no, it is not Vienna Austria… it is Harlingen, Texas HRL.

  8. And the small airport in Sanford, FL, about 40 miles north of Orlando International Airport (OIA) renamed itself Orlando Sanford International Airport a few years ago. May be confusing to tourists coming from all over the world, but certainly establishes where they are.

  9. After reading that Allegiant is starting service to Bloomington I went to their website to see if it would pull up. It did, and there are 2 destinations it will let you book: Daytona Beach/Sanford and Orlando-Sanford. Hmmmmm…

  10. Makes perfect sense. Also explains Newark, NJ, sort of. They renamed it Newark Liberty, since that’s what you give up when you transit through Newark. It’s like saying “that’s bad ass” meaning, “it’s good”.

    1. LOL Love it. Newark :) It’s getting better (at least Terminal C) but overall still sucks.

      @Ken, that is weird. You would think people realize that Orlando and Daytona are not really that far apart.

      Comparing this to Amtrak, I cannot recall a single rail station that’s some long-winded advertisement for something.

  11. One other spot to be weary about the full name is on credit card statements. On my US Bank credit card Seattle-Tacoma International Airport it truncates the name as “SEATTLE TACO” – which makes me giddy to no end!

    Tacoma has to be in the airport’s name due to an agreement between the cities when it was built. Interestingly enough the airport is now located in SeaTac, WA which is named after the airport!

  12. My home airport is called Greater Rochester International Airport. At irst this would seem to be a misnomer but it does qualify. There is one flight a day between Rochester and Toronto on a Beechcraft by Air Canada partner Georgian Air.

  13. Bill, whether or not an airport has “international” in the title does not qualify the “International” status of an airport. This is a common misconception. The “International” status simply means that the airport has been designated as a US Port of Entry airport and has US Customs available on the field.

    1. Not sure if “port of entry” would be the correct term for all of these wanna-be “international” airports. Maybe “landing rights” would be better, since a port of entry is a no-foolin’ customs is available 24/7.

      Example (at least this was true a few years ago): TUS is a POE, but PHX is landing rights. At TUS, the Feds have to handle you if you tell them you’re arriving at 0300 on Sunday from Mexico; at PHX the bureaucrats can refuse your arrival if it’s “too late.”

      1. That is true with the 5 airports on the Texas Mexico Border. All have landing rights because of the treaty that allows it but BRO is the only POE. There have been some changes that allow non-POE airports to schedule a customs inspection with advance notice and significant cost for cargo and pax charters but only the 24/7 customs operations qualify as true international airports.

  14. Wow, these comments are great examples of how airports use their names to attract more passengers and even airlines (Allegiant). I’m sure we could find dozens more examples of airports around the world using this strategy. It just goes to show how useful, productive, and powerful an airport’s name can be in terms of developing a growth strategy. I’d really be interested in the feasibility and revenue analysis of leasing an airport’s name. Unfortunately, I’m still waiting to hear back from the AAAE if there are any rules or regulations limiting the control the airport has over it’s name. I haven’t been able to find any, but if anyone has any insight on this, I’d certainly be interested!

  15. The Orlando Sanford International Airport first used Orlando in its name back around 1996 when it started the first nonstop flights to the United Kingdom. The name changed that year from Central Florida Regional Airport to Orlando Sanford Airport. The “International” was added in 2001. The brand value of the “Orlando” in the Airport’s name has been undeniable from a marketing standpoint as the airport was the fastest growing airport in North America several years in the early 2000s. It now handles about 2 million passengers a year and is Allegiant’s second busiest hub, largely because of the value of using Orlando in its marketing brand.

  16. Another comment with respect to naming rights. Several airports have seriously considered naming airline terminals after corporations or individuals who would donate significant funds, or in acquiring naming rights as a sponsorship opportunity similar to sports venues. But, this would only be for the terminal, and not the entire airport. There are apparently no rules or regulations governing this practice on a federal or state level, but there could be local restrictions based on the governance of the facility. Detroit was not successful in its naming rights venture, but Wichita is still working on its project that will be associated with the new terminal that will soon be under construction.

    1. Good to know, and thanks for the information. It would seem far more lucrative for an airport to lease its name rather than a terminal, since an airport’s name is what gets most of the exposure. To keep up with the sports stadium comparison, an airport selling the naming rights for a terminal is like a sports stadium selling the naming rights for a press box. Press box deals can be as low as a few tens of thousands of dollars, while stadium deals are in the millions per year.

  17. Our hometown airport hits the point and the counterpoint. On the one hand, it’s named Cleveland Hopkins International (formerly Cleveland Municipal, if I remember correctly)–so the place gets first billing. On the other hand, its marketing slogan is “CLE: Going Places,” which emphasizes its utilitarian value (getting the hell out of Cleveland) and implements the marketing-unfriendly IATA code.

    1. Actually, I think CLE is utilizing two different strategies. First, it is using it’s airport name to link it with the city. Second, it is using it’s marketing slogan to tie in the greater Cleveland economic development symbol of “CLE+.” This post doesn’t touch on an airport’s marketing slogan, which is geared towards a different, more local audience. An airport’s name is “advertised” around the world, while the marketing slogan is mainly geared toward the region the airport serves plus maybe a few other key cities. That’s why the message of the marketing slogan runs counter to their airport name – they are trying to convey two different messages to two different audiences.

  18. Perhaps the most mis-named airport in the U.S. is called St Louis Downtown Airport.(STLDTAP) It’s the old Parks Airport, dating back to the early days of aviation. But now they somehow figure to capitalize by a huge violation of truth-in-advertising. First of all, the airport is not in St Louis; it’s not in the same state! St Louis is in the state of Missouri and STLDTAP is in Illinois! And it’s not downtown, or else the runways would be surrounded by tall buildings! It’s nowhere near even the downtown of East St Louis, the closest big town. Apparently an airport can choose whatever name it likes and the FAA never bothers to check on its validity!

    1. As a former St Louis resident, I don’t think this airport’s name is that inaccurate. It is the closest airport to downtown St Louis (can see the arch from the airport grounds) and assuming the bridge is clear, about a 15 min trip to downtown STL. It is by far the closest and most practical airport for downtown.

  19. It sounds like Amsterdam Airport Schiphol is quite exceptional; it has kept its name since its founding as military airport in 1916, despite an attempt by KLM to change the name in 1921. As far as I know it never added “International” to its name too.

    BTW, In Dutch Schiphol is officially known as “Luchthaven Schiphol” (Schiphol Airport) without any mention of “Amsterdam” or “International”.

  20. As a native Floridian, I am always fascinated by the names of the similarly-sized regional airports in Florida’s panhandle, a situation that has only become more confusing with the grand opening of the new (and newly named) airport serving Panama City, FL.

    The “Panama City / Bay County International Airport” (PFN) used to serve this area from a convenient location 4.2 miles from the city center. However, the new airport is called the “Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport” (ECP) and is 22.3 miles from the city center, out in the middle of nowhere, technically West Bay, Florida, according to the airport authority website. I believe PFN was closed to all aviation afterwards.

    If the full name of ECP sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because it is. The “Northwest Florida Regional Airport” is the official name for VPS, named for Valparaiso, FL, the town nearest the airport which is actually located on the grounds of Eglin AFB. This airport serves the Fort Walton Beach / Destin area
    but is not to be confused with the general aviation Destin airport (DTS).

    So, in summary, the “Northwest Florida Beaches” airport and the “Northwest Florida Regional” airport are two separate airports, located 62.3 miles apart from each other!

    1. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton “International” Airport is located in Avoca, PA. Hence the AVP code.

  21. The odd part of this article is the insinuation that none of these airports deserve to put the name Yellowstone in theirs. The Yellowstone Airport in West Yellowstone was created, funded, and requested to be built by the US Department of Interior to service Yellowstone National Park in 1963. As the Park Service could not own the airport the State of Montana sponsored the airport and agreed to operate it. If an airport deserves the moniker of “Yellowstone” it is the one in which the Park Service created.

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