Cracking airlines' three-letter codes


FORT WORTH, Texas -- Donald Smith is on a quest to crack some codes.

Not the kind of codes that involve espionage or international intrigue or even computer geekdom. Rather, Smith is investigating the three-letter airport codes you see on your travel agent's computer terminal and on stickers placed on checked baggage.

Take, for instance, DFW, PHX and ATL. If you've done any traveling by plane, you'll know the codes stand for airports in Dallas-Fort Worth, Phoenix and Atlanta.

"Every airline in the whole wide world uses the codes," says Smith, 62, an American Airlines retiree. "They are used for identification in reservations as well as baggage checking and air freight."

Smith is more interested in the obscure codes.

Why BDL for the airport in Hartford, Conn.? Why OGG for Maui, Hawaii? Why ORD for Chicago's O'Hare Airport?

The Arlington, Texas, resident has sent out inquiries to 40 American Airlines general managers in as many cities to get answers.

L "I am the inquisitive type, I guess you might say," he says.

Smith began as a ticket salesman at American and worked his way up to division sales manager. He spent nearly 40 years with the company.

He now volunteers at the American Airlines C.R. Smith Museum, which has on display a restored 1940-vintage DC-3 and exhibits on American Airlines' history and on the science of flight.

The museum is named after Cyrus Rowlett Smith (no relation to Donald Smith), who became president of American Airlines in 1934 and led the company for 34 years.

Earlier this year, a visitor piqued Donald Smith's curiosity. A woman from Waco, Texas, pointed out that her city's airport's code is ACT. She asked Smith whether he knew what ACT stood for. He professed ignorance. She replied that it stood for Airport Central Texas.

But later Smith read in a newspaper that the code came from the airport's Madison Cooper Terminal. The "m" in Madison could not be used, because an airport in Muscat, Oman, already used the code MCT.

Smith then called the airport in Waco, and officials there checked with a local Federal Aviation Administration expert.

A mystery in Texas

The expert said he believed ACT stood for Amon Carter Terminal, which had been part of an old World War I Army pilot training base in the area. Smith now refers to Waco as "the Mystery City."

But "it dawned on me that it would be an interesting exercise to learn where the names came from," he says.

In the past few months, Smith has begun to get some answers to his inquiries.

Hartford's BDL, for example, stands for Bradley Field, named after a Lt. Eugene M. Bradley, a young pilot who died in a plane crash there in 1941.

OGG is believed to have been derived from Hogg, the surname of a Hawaiian airline captain.

It took Smith some time to get details on ORD. He had to call American Airlines' Chicago office. He told them he was informing museum visitors that "O'Hare" came from Scarlett O'Hare in Gone With the Wind. A joke, but it got Chicago's attention.

"I got a fax in 20 minutes from the airlines and an 11-page fax from the O'Hare Airport Authority," he says.

Smith learned that, during World War II, part of O'Hare was a military airplane factory known as Orchard Place, because the road from downtown Chicago to the facility was called Orchard Road. Thus, ORD. In June 1949, Orchard Place was renamed in honor of a young Chicagoan, Lt. Cmdr. Edward "Butch" O'Hare, a naval aviator killed in 1943.

If you go...

The American Airlines C.R. Smith Museum is at 4601 Highway 360 at FAA Road in Fort Worth, Texas. It's open Tuesday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, call (817) 967-1560.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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