01 MAR 2018: There's a hilarious YouTube piece by comedian Gary Gulman that's built on what may be the most unlikely idea for a comedy routine since 'Who's on first?" It's a fictitious version of the conversations that might have taken place among the group hired by the US Postal Service to abbreviate all 50 US states into two-letter codes.  

Surprisingly this exercise took place as recently as 1973. Prior to that time, states had used pretty much whatever they wanted - Florida was FLA, Massachusetts was Mass, Connecticut was Conn, Utah was … well, Utah - but you get the picture. As Gulman imagines it, they would have tackled the task alphabetically and begun with Alabama. Someone immediately suggests AL and they all agree thinking, "this is going to be a breeze." Then next up was Alaska! Okay maybe not so easy after all. Then came Colorado, Connecticut … the skit goes on.

The sketch got me pondering on something that has always bemused me: How - and Y - did Canadian airports get their three-letter IATA 'Location Identifiers' (to use the formal term)?

Blame it on the Americans: In the early days of aviation, airlines followed the two-letter system used by the National Weather Service to identify US cities with weather stations. Then, when commercial aviation took hold in the 1930s and airlines started flying to places devoid of weather stations, some bureaucrat had a brainstorm and the three-letter airport system was born.

To date just over 9,000 of the possible 17,576 three-letter combinations have been assigned. Canada has 517 of them but you may be surprised to learn that the Y is not ubiquitous - 81/15% of those airfields do not start with the letter Y! By the same token, there are 40 airports outside of Canada that start with a Y -so nothing is sacred: The majority of them are in China. If your bag ever gets misdirected to YCY rather than YYC it might take a trip to Clyde River in Nunavut. But tagging it YZY rather than YYZ would take it all the way and to Zhangye Airport in Ganzhao China!

Whatever the three-letter codes however, Canada has to have some of the world's most enchanting airport names - even if you have never heard of 75 percent of them. Take for instance these beauties as well as some great trivia:

  • ZAA is Alice Arm Airport in BC
  • YAX is Angling Lake Airport in Wapekeka, Ontario
  • QBC is not in Quebec, it is Bella Coola Airport in BC …
  • not to be confused with ZEL, which is Bella Bella, also in BC
  • XBB is Blubber Bay Airport in BC
  • ZUM, ZUM, ZUM is not a car ad. ZUM is Churchill Falls in Labrador
  • YGY – which should have been Calgary’s code - is actually Deception Bay, QC.
  • YPA is Glass Field Airport in Prince Albert SK
  • If you thought Fiumicino is Rome (FCO) you’d be correct. It is also the location of ZRR - Harbour Airport, Fuimicino NWT .
  • YJO is Johnny Mountain Airport in (you guessed it) Johnny Mountain BC.
  • YYY – YY not? Probably the code every Canadian airport would love to have Quebec’s Mont Joli
  • YED – the code Edmonton should have had (YEG??) – is actually CFB Namoa a helicopter base outside Edmonton.

So, there you have it - the perfect excuse for a new Canadian trivia game. For the complete list you can go to http://www.prokerala.com/travel/airports/canada  and see how many of the 517 Canadian airports your dinner guests can name.

Then just for fun you can throw in - which airport three-letter code is first in the world alphabetically - AAA is Tuamotus in French Polynesia. And last with ZZV is Zanesville Municipal Airport Ohio - a big letdown after French Polynesia!

As yet ZZZ is unassigned - maybe because it just sounds way too sleepy a destination. Have fun!



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David Tait

David Tait's insight and irrepressible humour give us an insider's take on the airlines and the industry in general. He doesn't pull his punches, and readers find his columns thoughtful, informative, amusing and infuriating – regardless, David's views on our industry are always original. 

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