fire truck atlanta airport
Photograph ©2009 by Brian Cohen.

Why Name Airports After People?

B efore I begin, I am going to give you a little quiz — and please do not use any aid or assistance in deriving the answers, as they should be strictly confined to your knowledge and memory.

Please tell me who are the following people and for what they are known:

  1. Edward O’Hare
  2. Edward Lawrence Logan
  3. Henri Coandă
  4. Ben Elbert Douglas, Sr.
  5. Donald Sangster
  6. John Foster Dulles
  7. Francisco de Sá Carneiro
  8. Lester B. Pearson
  9. William R. Hopkins
  10. William P. Hobby
  11. Gerald R. Ford
  12. Jorge Newbery
  13. Eugene M. Bradley
  14. Benito Juárez
  15. Pat McCarran

You probably know who are one of those people listed — perhaps more than one. Chances are, however, that you are not familiar with all of the names on that list other than the fact that international airports are named after them.

Why Name Airports After People?

People believe that naming an airport — or even a highway — in the memory of a person is an honor. Tell me — when you think of the name Fiorello LaGuardia, what is the first thought which comes to your mind: the former mayor of New York, or the fact that your flight will almost certainly be delayed? How many people in Chicago mumble profanities under their breaths when they think about Dan Ryan during rush hour?

Politicians in Atlanta wanted to honor former mayor Maynard Jackson when he died in 2003 for all that he did towards improving the international airport — but the airport was already named after William B. Hartsfield, another former mayor credited with developing what was then known as Candler Field into a national aviation center. Both men served two separate terms as mayor of Atlanta. However, the descendants of Hartsfield protested amidst word of possibly renaming the airport after Jackson, so the name Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport was the result of a compromise — especially as part of the compromise was to officially name the international terminal the Maynard Holbrook Jackson Jr. International Terminal.

Give me a break.

By the way, Candler Field was named after Asa Candler, yet another former mayor of Atlanta who bought the formula for Coca-Cola from John Pemberton — who concocted and developed the formula — and aggressively marketed Coca-Cola from which he amassed millions of dollars.

John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York was originally called Idlewild Airport, which was named after the golf course it displaced. What the heck is an Idlewild, anyway? Is that when people get antsy as their flight is delayed while the aircraft on which they are passengers sits on the tarmac?

It costs money to change the name of an airport. The cost for new signs alone at Washington National Airport to change the name to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport was estimated at $60,000.00, not including such items as revising highway signage, transit signage, business cards and other printed materials…

…and I agree with those who argue that Washington National Airport was already named after a president of the United States.

I will be the first to admit that Brian Cohen International Airport does not quite smoothly roll off the tongue; nor does BCIA or Brian Cohen Expressway. I am not sure I want something named after me to be run over by millions of cars per year or have some Boeing 747-800 airplane land on it — and be marked with oil splatters and skid marks — and even though my bodily functions currently operate normally, I really do not want people to say that the Brian Cohen is “backed up” again.


I have asked this question before — specifically, in this article: what is the point of naming an airport after someone? Why must naming airports be more complicated than necessary? Why not just name it after the destination it serves? That practice would be far less expensive, reduce political wrangling — and it would be easier to write out the full name of the airport:

  • Denver International Airport
  • San Francisco International Airport
  • Miami International Airport


If possible, I would even consider changing the airport codes to reflect going back to basics:

  • Chicago International Airport — CIA
  • New York International Airport — NYI
  • Boston International Airport — BIA


In locations with more than one airport, perhaps differentiate them by either purpose or direction:

  • Houston International Airport
  • Houston Domestic Airport
  • Houston Airport East


Simple. Easy. Done. A bit boring, perhaps — but quite functional, with no need for confusing and expensive name changes in the future…

…unless airports decide to charge for naming rights — similar to stadiums and arenas. What a mess that would become.

By the way, the answers to the quiz — as well as other names which you may never have heard before — are found here

…but I will give you two hints or answers:

People probably were angry — GRR — when the airport which serves the greater Grand Rapids metropolitan area of Michigan was named after Gerald R. Ford, who was a former president of the United States…

…or was he the person who founded the Ford Motor Company…?

Francisco de Sá Carneiro — who was a former prime minister of Portugal and after whom the airport which serves the greater Porto metropolitan area was named — died at the age of 46 in an airplane crash in 1980.

How ironic is that?!?

If the name of the airport on this fire truck were shorter, the name Atlanta would be significantly larger. Photograph ©2009 by Brian Cohen.

  1. While no political recognition ever satisfies everyone, I seem to recall that changing the name from Kent County International to Gerald R Ford International was pretty popular in Grand Rapids. Jerry Ford grew up there, and represented the city for 25 years in Congress before being appointed Vice President. He typically won his elections there by a 2:1 margin, and was well liked personally.

    People want to lionize their heroes, but have a hard time with projecting time scales. While few alive can remember Fiorello LaGuardia, I suspect most people in the US today can’t imagine a time when Obama will be forgotten even if, though unlikely, the term “Obamacare” survives, or when “9/11” will be as obscure as “Remember the Maine” (even though it’s already pre-history to many who will vote in the 2020 presidential election). So they don’t bother to put an expiration date on their appellations.

    Almost nobody who curses Dan Ryan has the faintest clue, nor cares, who Dan Ryan, Jr. was, it’s just a triplet of syllables to attach to an epithet. Similarly, I don’t think any less of Fiorello because “his” airport sucks – I don’t think of him at all.

    OTOH, I still find it kind of fun to look up those who have been honored. And if you think the Hartsfield-Jackson fight was ridiculous, can you imagine the blood to be spilled between the O’Hare International and Midway International factions for the rights to the name “Chicago International Airport”?

  2. As a victim of bad acronyms at my home airport (MCI) I can relate. Personally I think cities should sell the naming rights to corporations if it would take some of the tax burden off the local citizens. I also think that naming airports after presidents is OK as they are very famous and served the highest office in the land, even President Ford. I refuse to call ATL anything other than Atlanta, mostly due to the fact that the local airport commission hates it. Silly.

    Back to naming rights. It could be great. Just imagine SEA just being renamed Boeing or Microsoft. How about SFO being renamed Oracle Airport or maybe Detroit renamed to Ford or GM, etc. It’s the smaller airports that would get interesting like say SGF (Springfield) being renamed Bass Pro World Airport with big aquariums and a shooting range onsite. Maybe Omaha would get Mr. Buffett involved or he could elect to have Burlington Northern on the name, wouldn’t that be great. An airport named after a railroad. Back here in Kansas City we’d have to settle for something like H&R Block Field or maybe some other local company. I’d vote to change the airport code to BBQ for MCI except Barbuda already has that right, go figure we are always late to the draw since TWA left town.

  3. I agree wholeheartedly about the absurdity of some airport names. In CT, the major airport is Bradley International. Mr. Bradley was a 24 y.o. Air Force pilot in training. He was killed in a plane crash at the airport. He was from Oklahoma. It would make far more sense to name the airport after Ella Grasso, the first female governor in CT , perhaps in the nation. She was highly accomplished and well loved.

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