Friday, August 24, 2012

Airport Codes

Anyone who flies very often quickly becomes aware of the three-letter airport codes that appear on baggage claim tickets, boarding passes and so on. And anyone who flies in Canada probably wonders why Canadian airport codes all seem to start with the letter Y, whilst in most normal countries they seem to have airport codes that at least relate to the city. Other countries get recognizable codes like HKG (Hong Kong) or PEK (Beijing, formerly known as Peking) or LAX (Los Angeles). Some international airport codes relate to the name of the airport: JFK (John F Kennedy – New York), CDG (Charles de Gaulle – Paris), LHR (London Heathrow). Though you'd have to be in the know to recognize FCO (Leonardo da Vinci – Fiumicino) as Rome. Not in Canada. Here we get such inscrutable combinations of letters as YQY (Sydney, Nova Scotia; not to be confused with SYD – Sydney, Australia – though from time to time one does read of foreign tourists who manage to mix the two up, and can be found looking for the Opera House near the Port-aux-Basques ferry.)

Strictly speaking, there are two sets of airport codes, the three-letter IATA codes and four-letter ICAO codes. You can generally get the ICAO codes for Canadian airports by sticking a C in front of the IATA codes. (Why the two organizations feel the need for different sets of codes is a whole separate topic).

I don't know exactly why Canadian airport codes all seem to start with the letter Y. Googling the question reveals a complex technical explanation having to do with weather stations. Actually, not all Canadian airport codes do start with Y.

According to this database, there are 401 airports in Canada. 322 of them have IATA codes that start with Y, 33 with Z, 4 with X and 7 with other letters. 35 have no IATA airport code at all. Nevertheless, the big airports do all have codes starting with Y. Given that restriction, at least some relate to the city, like YVR (Vancouver) and YWG (Winnipeg). And YOW is obviously Ottawa (derived from a word commonly uttered when people see their tax bills). But most seem pretty random, like YYZ.

I like to fly. I don't fly as much as really hard-core frequent flyers, but I do fly a bit every year. So far I have flown in and out of 18 Canadian airports and 22 international ones. Oh, and 2 heliports. (And I have flights booked that will take me to four new international airports this fall). So when I named this blog I thought it would be fun to use the airport codes for Montreal and Edmonton in the name: YUL (Montreal) 2 YEG (Edmonton). It also made for a short and memorable URL for the blog. But I thought it was a bit of an insider reference. People who have flown often enough into or out of either city would recognize the codes instantly, but that would be it, I thought.

I was wrong.

In Edmonton, YEG is way more than an airport code. It has taken on a life of its own, as a general city reference, especially in the Twitterverse, where #yeg is a commonplace hashtag for the city, and compounds of #yeg abound: #yegtraffic, #yegtransit, #yegarts, #yegfestivals, #yegdt (Downtown), #yegcc (City Council) and on and on. The @CityofEdmonton, the police, the media, and ordinary Edmontonians all use this convention. This afternoon, while I was pondering this post on a stroll downtown, I even saw a car with the civic-pride vanity license plate YEG4ME. (Really! I am not making this up!) Ironically, YEG the airport isn't actually in the City of Edmonton; it's about 20 minutes to the south. Edmonton City Centre Airport (also known as Blatchford Field) is YXD. It's just a few blocks from where I live. Though it's also in the process of closing. And strangely enough, YEG the airport seems to prefer to refer to itself as EIA (Edmonton International Airport). But YEG is a well-known and apparently much-used reference.

Not so in Montreal. There the most common abbreviated reference to the city is MTL and #mtl is the common hashtag. YUL refers to Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport (formerly known as Dorval) and usually not much else. (Though there seem to be some people who are trying to use #yul as a more general hashtag, as a quick search on Twitter will show.) YUL always reminds me of Christmas, as well as Montreal's airport. But not really the city. People know what it is, but they don't seem to feel the need to extend its use beyond the airport. MTL just seems more natural.

I don't know what all this means. Maybe Edmontonians fly more than Montrealers. Or maybe #yeg is simply amazing cool. Or maybe it doesn't mean very much at all.

But I do find the currency of the airport code outside the airport and frequent-flyer conversations curious.

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