Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Dangers of Airport Polynom Syndrome

Today I’d like to explore one of the problems that is encountered by modern travelers: airports with multiple names. This may not sound like a serious problem, but airports with multiple names add to the general confusion of travel.

Airports often start off named for the city or region in which the airport is located. As the area develops, this name can become out of date, so the name is updated. Eventually, the local government decides to honor a local hero or politician by changing the airport’s name once again. The result: an airport with far too many names.

I recently took a trip to Southern California, and I was advised to fly into the Orange County airport. I looked up the airport code at World Airport Codes and found that the Orange County airport code was SNA, as the airport is also known as Santa Ana, the city in which the airport is located.

When I booked my tickets, my itinerary showed that my destination was Orange County/Santa Ana. When I checked in, my boarding pass said that my destination was Orange County. Not knowing with absolute certainty that Orange County only had one airport, I was slightly confused. After all, this was California, the same state whose public university system uses the following naming convention: University of California followed by the city name in which the university is located (ie: UC Davis, UC Berkley, etc.). There could have been Orange County/Santa Ana, Orange County/Anaheim, etc. Considering this, I think that my moderate level of confusion was completely reasonable.

After reassurances from a gate agent that I was boarding the correct plane, I relaxed for the flight down to Orange County/Santa Ana. You can understand my surprise when I was greeted by the following sign upon my arrival:

In short, I had booked a flight to Santa Ana, flown into Orange County and arrived at John Wayne. If you’ve flown to this particular airport before, then you are surely aware of this naming oddity. However, if you’ve never been there before, as in this case, then you’d probably be as confused as I was. Luckily, the family members picking me up knew about all of the names, and they picked me up at the correct airport.

The Defining of a Syndrome
Airport Polynom Syndrome:
When an airport has more than one name to which it is commonly referred to, it is said that the airport suffers from Airport Polynom Syndrome or APS.

If APS was isolated to a single airport, then I would probably let it pass, but APS does not afflict Orange County/Santa Ana/John Wayne alone. I’m not exactly sure how deep the problem is, but I do know that the effects of APS are widespread. They reach out as far as Taiwan.

When I was planning my travel to Taiwan, I was told to fly into Taipei and that I should to use the CKS airport. I typed the airport code CKS into the website of my favorite airline in order to get an idea of how long the trip Taiwan would take. Much to my surprise, I found out that this would take me to Brazil. After a bit of head scratching and a few internet searches, I discovered that CKS was an acronym for Chiang Kai Shek, for whom the airport was named. The correct code to use was TPE, for Taipei. Once I had that bit of information, my inquiries went much smoother. APS can confuse even an experienced traveler, and the effects of APS are further complicated by poorly defined acronyms.

Varying Degrees of APS
The above examples reflect the moderate variety of APS; each airport had three names. Mild cases of APS are much more common (two names), but they are dealt with much less difficulty than more advanced cases. I believe that more advanced cases of APS are present in the world today, but I don’t have any first hand knowledge of them at this time. If you know of any airports with four or more names, please let me know.

What Can We Do?
Unfortunately, I believe that the spread of APS is an inevitable part of the evolution of travel. I suppose that airlines can do a bit more to educate customers, but putting all of the names that an airport has accumulated on signage and boarding passes may be difficult due to space limitations. Airports could resist the urge to change their names, but I fear that the marketing departments of airports may be too easily swayed against common sense and usability. As consumers, we can spread the word about APS and educate ourselves about the problem in hope that those with the power to make changes take notice of the situation.

The problem would be somewhat simplified if a comprehensive list of airports with all of their aliases was available. Such a list could be integrated into an existing website such as World Airport Codes, thus providing a great service to the traveling public. Once such a list is established, you could easily do a search for any of the aliases, and the correct airport code would pop up along with all of the aliases for that airport. This wouldn’t get everyone to use the same name for an airport, but it would provide a good tool that would serve the purpose of avoiding traveler confusion.

Are you aware of any airports that suffer from advanced APS with 4 or more names? Do you have first hand experience in dealing with APS? Please add a comment below, and we’ll see how widespread this problem is.

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  1. One of the confusions I frequently come across is Florence, in Italy.

    The official name of the tiny airport is Amerigo Vespucci and the airport code is FLR. It is also known as Florence - Peretola for the geographical location.

    The REAL confusion comes when people start referring to the larger airport in Pisa as Florence-Pisa aka Galileo-Galilei aka PSA. Then you have people who say they are flying into Florence (PSA) when it's an entirely different city.

  2. I've run across this confusion many times as well. As one of those marketing department people, I'd like to think I've been swayed toward common sense and usability. While the Eugene Airport is also known as Mahlon Sweet Field, I've branded our airport with flyEUG. It's short, easy to remember, and utilizes the IATA identifier that would come up in a search. And it serves as a nice short url:

  3. Liz: That Florence airport sounds like a naming pain. It's great to now be aware of that, thanks.

    Cathryn Stephens: I'm glad that you lean toward common sense. Please resist the urge to change EUG to Nike Field or the Phil Knight Airport as PKA would send people to Alaska. Using the airport code in marketing is a great idea, and more airports should use the method to avoid confusion.

  4. A great example of these airport naming conundrums is South Africa. After the end of Apartheid, many things were renamed, including the Jan Smuts Airport in Johannesburg, which was changed to O.R. Tambo. And I guess there are only so many airport codes in the world!

  5. Excellent point. We have the same problem with all kinds of public buildings. Take stadiums for example. I live in Calgary which has what started out as the Olympic Saddledome (built for the Olympics) which became Canadian Airlines Saddledome and then Pengrowth Saddledome. Or Candlestick Park becoming 3Com Park, then Monster Park. At least SF has had the sense to reclaim their history and go back to Candlestick. Public buildings define a sense of place and history. I don't even follow sports really but it still pisses me off when they change the names every few years. Pretty soon we'll be selling the names of our cities too: welcome to Wal Mart City (formerly known as Chicago).