I was thinking recently about names of airports. The standard formula in the United States is to name an airport after its locality, and if there are multiple airports, to name it after a local personality or feature. A small proportion of our airports are named after truly national figures, unlike in Latin America or Africa, where airports are frequently named after political or military (or, all too often, political-military) leaders. There are only seven U.S. airports that have ever been named after presidents:
- Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport, Springfield, Ill.
- Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport, Dickinson, N.D.
- Harry S. Truman Airport, St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands (renamed after the islands’ first elected governor in 1984)
- John F. Kennedy International Airport, New York City.
- Gerald R. Ford International Airport, Grand Rapids, Mich.
- Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport
- George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Houston
A look at the list of the one hundred busiest U.S. airports yields these results:
- 66% of them are named after their location
- 15% are named after a local or regional figure, almost always a politician (Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska or Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia of New York)
- 9% are named after a military hero (MacArthur, O’Hare, Mitchell, Logan and others)
- 6% are named after a national political figure (four presidents, one secretary of state, and one Supreme Court justice)
- 4% are named after a cultural figure (John Wayne, Will Rogers, Bob Hope, and Louis Armstrong)
Compare this to Mexico. Of some sixty-nine airports with commercial service:
- 44% are named after their location
- 35% are named after a military leader or military hero
- 10% are named after a local, usually a political, figure
- 4% are named after a national political leader (although at many points in Mexico’s history, there’s a thick gray line between military leader and political leader)
- 4% are named after a cultural figure, cultural artifact, or other source
The Mexico figures are mirrored in many Latin American countries and in many other developing countries. Think of Sukarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta or Murtala Mohammed International Airport in Lagos. On the contrary, Canada mirrors the United States with 73% of its twenty-six National Airport System airports named after their locations, 15% named after a national political figure, and 12% named after a locally known figure.
But not all countries have many airports named after prominent individuals. In the United Kingdom, there are only two: George Best Belfast City Airport in Northern Ireland, named after a soccer player, and Liverpool John Lennon Airport. Of the combined list of the world’s busiest airports and the world’s highest volume of international passengers (totaling forty-six), 74% are named simply for the location they serve, 17% are named after political, military, or local figures (more than half of these are U.S. airports), and 9% are named for a cultural figure or reference. There’s much to be said for a simple, memorable, location-specific airport name. If a metro area has more than one airport, the smart thing to do is give the airport a name and stick to it. London’s airports are all named after the hamlets where the airfields were first located: Heath Row, Gatwick, Stansted, and Luton. Those names are now far more well-known as airports. Imagine a typical, American-style-try-to-please-everyone name for a London airport: Queen Elizabeth II-Heathrow London International Airport. Or Stansted-Tony Blair National Jetport. Not a great ring to it. (On a related note, it’s probably a good idea to wait until a president has passed and the nation is more sanguine about his administration before honoring him with airports.)
Indeed, few airports named after people were given that name at their founding. Most acquired the name later. JFK was Idlewild, Louis Armstrong International Airport was Moisant Field, and so forth. Airports with pedestrian local names have, over time, tended to honor prominent individuals. Some of the names chosen indicate the zeitgeist: during the first fifty years of flight, honorary names tended to go to daring aviators or heroic military men. In the late twentieth century, prominent local politicians were in favor. Does anyone not from Nevada recognize the name McCarran? Would any non-Atlantan acknowledge the mayors Hartsfield and Jackson? Lately, cultural icons and civil rights heroes have come into vogue: Bob Hope at Burbank, civil rights leader Medgar Evers in Jackson, Miss., and Thurgood Marshall in Baltimore. Occasionally, airports move in the opposite direction. Trying to geographically brand their airport as a Southern California gateway, tourism officials want to include Orange County in John Wayne Airport’s name.
All the same, it’s rare that Americans call the airport by its new name for a generation or two. In New Orleans, no one refers to the airport as “Armstrong.” It’s “the airport,” “New Orleans International,” or possibly “Moisant.” Baltimore-Washington, named officially after Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall in 2005, is called “BWI” by locals. Most probably don’t even know that is named after him. Ditto for San Jose International, named after Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta in 2001. Over time, these names can gain currency: after some controversy, Washington National Airport was renamed (clunkily) Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in 1998. Locals who’ve been around for a while tend to still call it “National,” while newcomers often refer to it as “Reagan.” Both know what the other means.
But refer to our airport to the north as “Marshall,” and no cabdriver will have a clue.
Photo credit: Flickr user mrbill. Used through a Creative Commons license.