In the early days of aviation, airports were little more than muddy fields with a rutted airstrip and a windsock. Today, they are an increasingly vital part of the economic health and prosperity of a city, metropolitan area, region, state, or even nations. As air travel and air freight have grown by leaps and bounds (no pun intended) and the competition between markets to attract flights increases, the branding of airports has evolved into a modern Madison Avenue-styled marketing phenomenon.
As I was growing up, many airports were simply named for local aviation heroes, politicians, or other famous local individuals. Here are some examples:
- Weir Cook Municipal Airport – Indianapolis, IN
- Standiford Field – Louisville, KY
- Baer Field – Fort Wayne, IN
- Lunken Municipal Airport – Cincinnati, OH
- Lindbergh Airport – San Diego, CA
- Adams Field – Little Rock, AR
- McCoy International Airport – Orlando, FL
- Byrd Airport – Richmond, VA
- Bader Field – Atlantic City, NJ
- Berry Airport – Nashville, TN
- Dress Regional Airport – Evansville, IN
This is not to say that many airports remain named for famous people, as these examples can attest:
- Reagan National Airport – Washington, DC
- Clinton National Airport – Little Rock, AR
- O’Hare International Airport – Chicago, IL
- Hartsfield International Airport – Atlanta, GA
- Lambert International Airport – St. Louis, MO
- Stevens International Airport – Anchorage, AK
- Hopkins International Airport – Cleveland, OH
- Logan International Airport – Boston, MA
- Dulles International Airport – Washington, DC
- Will Rogers World Airport – Oklahoma City, OK
- Eppley Airfield – Omaha, NE
- General Mitchell International Airport – Milwaukee, WI
- Gerald R. Ford International Airport – Grand Rapids, MI
- Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport – New Orleans, LA
Some airports, like Clinton National Airport in Little Rock have updated their name (from Adams Field) for it to be more recognizable to current populations. Most of us are much more familiar with Bill and Hillary Clinton than we are with General George Geyer Adams. But, in several cases, the individual’s name has been entirely removed or given secondary status. Minneapolis-St. Paul International is rarely referred to as Wold Chamberlain any longer. Indianapolis, Louisville, Orlando, Richmond, Fort Wayne, Nashville, Evansville, and Atlantic City have largely dropped the personalized namesake and solely utilize the city’s name and “International.”
Over the years, terminology utilized for describing the airport’s importance/scale/or rank (actual or perceived) has been updated. For example:
- While ‘field” or “airfield” were once common monikers, today, “airport” is much more prevalent. “Air terminal” is infrequently used. (e.g. Roswell International Air Terminal)
- “Municipal” has morphed into “metropolitan,” “regional,” “national,” or “international” depending on the airport’s actual or perceived hierarchy and/or status among its peers.
- In one case, Greater Lansing, Michigan blended two of these terms into “Capital Region International Airport.” The problem with that name is if you are not from the Lansing area, you have no idea which “capital region” was being referred to. Considering there are 51 capital regions in the USA alone, this presents a problem, especially for international air travelers. “Greater Lansing International Airport” would solve that problem, improve clarity, and clearly identify the brand being marketed. Hint, hint.
Catchy synonyms are sometimes employed as a way to set a particular airport apart from its competition, such as:
- “Jetport” or “sunport” instead of “airport.” (e.g. Huntsville International Jetport, Portland, ME International Jetport, and Albuquerque International Sunport)
- “World” or “intercontinental” instead of “international.” (e.g. Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City and Houston’ George Bush Intercontinental Airport).
Given this revolving door of airport names and monikers, some are becoming excessively long. For example, the Twin Cities airport technically should be called Wold Chamberlain/Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Baltimore’s airport is technically Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Listed above is the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport. Those will fill up your letterhead and business card quickly! Most of us just continue to say BWI, which is also its FFA airport code for Baltimore. One region in Michigan resolved this issue by simplifying its airport name. Instead of “Saginaw-Bay City-Midland International Airport,” the name was shortened to a much more user-friendly “MBS International Airport.” Duplicate names can occasionally be an issue, as well. Thankfully Saginaw-Bay City-Midland did not decide to go with the name “Tri-Cities” Airport. That name is already taken by the Bristol-Johnson City-Kingsport area of Northeast Tennessee and by the Kennewick-Pasco-Richland area of south-central Washington.
Regionalizing an airport’s name without saying “regional” is a fairly common practice. Here are some examples:
- Eastern Iowa Airport – Cedar Rapids, IA
- Southwest Florida International Airport – Fort Myers, FL
- Sioux Gateway Airport – Sioux City, IA
- Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport – Fayetteville, AR
- Central Nebraska Regional Airport – Grand Island, NE
- Tri-State Airport – Huntington, WV
- T.F. Green State Airport – Providence, RI
- Southeast Texas Regional Airport – Beaumont-Port Arthur, TX
- Four Corners Regional Airport – Farmington, NM
- Northwest Alabama Regional Airport – Florence, AL
Identifying the airport in some manner that depicts its central or convenient location is also employed in branding.
- Mid-Continent Airport – Wichita, KS
- Mid-America Airport – Illinois suburbs of St. Louis, MO
Linking an airport to a larger nearby market is another method that is sometimes used to draw attention and/or more business.
- Chicago-Rockford International Airport – Rockford, IL
- Baltimore-Washington International Airport – Baltimore, MD
- Gary/Chicago International Airport – Gary, IN
Lastly, in a more recent effort to draw flights, passengers, business, and prestige to an airport, some places have begun highlighting a well-known attraction/destination within the airport name. Below are a few examples:
- Reno-Tahoe International Airport in Nevada
- Springfield-Branson Regional Airport in Missouri
- Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport in Virginia
- Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell, Montana
- Fresno-Yosemite International Airport in California
- Savannah-Hilton Head International Airport in Georgia
- Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport in Texas
Make no mistake, the airport business is extremely competitive. The degree to which it impacts cities around the world was never more clearly articulated than in the definitive book entitled, Aerotropolis, The Way We’ll Live Next by John Kasarda and Greg Lindsay. If community, state, or national leaders feel they can create perceived advantage over the competition by improving their local brand through a tweaking of the airport’s name, you bet they will consider doing it. The cost of a name change is much less than most, if not all, airport construction/reconstruction projects. But, let’s also not forget the pride factor. Civic boosterism is an important aspect to the marketing of place. If a new airport name increases local pride, reduces confusion, dispels urban legends, is catchy and memorable, or just building the collective local ego, then go for it.
I will readily admit that when I was growing up in Indianapolis, I thought it was seriously cool to have the airport renamed Weir Cook International Airport from Weir Cook Municipal Airport. Granted, the term “international” has become common nomenclature in the airport world anymore, but that will not stop cities from finding new, exciting, catchy, and sometimes dumb ways to brand their airport’s image to the outside world. Let’s all enjoy going along for the ride.