A Little About the IATA Airport Codes

Bag tag to Las Vegas AirportThis is a basic topic for people who have not been exposed to airport codes and their uses and significance when traveling.  I hope to provide some useful information that will help make life a little easier when it comes to the world of airlines and airports.

Have you ever wondered about those three-letter codes that appear on your luggage tag when you check a bag with your airline?  The codes are used to identify the airports all over the world.  Airports, both large and small, are assigned a three-letter code to designate their facility.  The baggage system in each airport uses that code to route bags to their final destination.  The bar code on the tag contains information that can be read by automated bag systems to send the bag to an airplane for loading, to another airplane if there is a change of planes, or to the correct baggage carousel so you can claim it after your flight.  It’s an easy system, but because there are so many codes now, a small error (usually human error) can mean that your bag ends up in Timbuktu instead of Maui.  Not good.  Look at the tag as it is being attached to your luggage.  Make sure that the right three-letter code is showing on the tag before it goes on the conveyor belt.  If the customer service rep puts the wrong tag on your bag (this has happened to me – my bag went to another state), you’ll have to wait while they try to figure  out what happened to your bag.  This can take 24 hours or more.  Ask the attendant if you have to, to show you the tag before they throw it on the belt. The folks who work at the check-in desks are good people, but sometimes they grab the wrong tag and put it on your bag. So it is your responsibility to be sure that the right tag is applied to your important luggage.

If you want to look up an airport code, go here to find it.  You’ll have an easier time understanding what is happening if you just know the airport codes that are to be used in your itinerary.  For example, if you were to make a flight reservation to go to London, the airport codes you might be using might be:


This means that your journey will start in San Francisco, then change planes at JFK airport in New York, then continue on to London’s Heathrow airport.  If your flight is on one airline, the tag they place on your bag should indicate the stop at JFK, but the big letters you see should be LHR, indicating that Heathrow is your end destination.  The tag will help the bag to transfer over to the airplane that you’ll take from JFK to LHR.  For some of you, this is not new information, but it pays to know what the airport codes are for trips you are expecting to take.  Many flight booking services let you use the three-letter code to choose the start and end points of the flight you are trying to book.  So next time you are making a reservation, type in the three-letter code instead of the city name and the airport should come up as a choice.

Where does this code come from?

The International Air Transport Association airport codes were developed to make it easier to identify airports all over the world. Some of the codes you’ll come across were simply letters taken from the name of the city – such as San Diego(SAN), San Francisco (SFO), San Jose (SJO), etc. Some airports have improved and expanded and changed their names over the years and were originally designated using the old location. Chicago’s O’Hare Airport (ORD) was originally Orchard Field.

Like most things, changes are necessary to maintain progress and growth. Airports are very important places and changes are inevitable. By learning the codes of the major airports of the world, you can navigate the busy world of airlines, ticketing and air connections necessary to get your favorite destinations.


About Steve

A traveler and fan of airports all over the world. Each airport encounter brings some new interesting experience. Never mind that a lot has changed over the last few years. Airports are fascinating places and should be explored and enjoyed!


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