CAPA: What’s In An eponym? Airport Names

According to a list in the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, there are 317 scheduled commercial airports around the world (out of a total of 4037 according to OAG/ACI [2013]) which are named after a person.

Most often that individual is (by far) a politician, or a religious leader. There is a small but growing number that are named, or more likely have been renamed, after a ‘celebrity,’ such as a musician, actor, artist or sportsperson for example and occasionally an industrialist.

One might assume that there is a commercial motive behind such a decision, at least partially. But there is little in the way of research so far into the quantifiable economic benefit of an airport adopting a celebrity eponym.

The vast majority of these airports are named after political or religious figures, or notable individuals from the fields of science and other disciplines. There are some dangers in taking the political route and even the religious one. While it is extremely unlikely that anyone would seek to name an airport after a tyrant, applying any political eponym to an airport runs the risk of alienating as many people as it encourages to use the facility. This is particularly true in the US, where political support amongst those who care at all is divided almost 50:50 between Republicans and Democrats with hardly any other parties or individuals getting a look in.

Passengers having distaste for a party may not be able to avoid using the named airport but they can minimize their patronage and circumvent the facilities in it.

President Obama will inevitably have an airport named after him – but where?

On the other hand such extreme reactions are rarely to be found where US airports are named after Presidents, who retain a special place in the heart of most American citizens, irrespective of their political doctrine. So there will almost certainly be a Barack H Obama airport one day when his two terms are complete, possibly in Chicago where his political power base is.

That would mean renaming O’Hare airport, which is currently named after a World War 2 flying ace, as Midway simply wouldn’t be ‘important enough,’ and the proposed South Chicago Suburban airport has been earmarked for cargo, which might not be appropriate. Or it could be in Hawaii, where he was born, or Kenya, where his father came from, or even Ireland, as the Irish have long celebrated the rise to power of ‘Barry O’Bama.’ (This was written on St Patrick’s Day and Dublin Airport does not carry anyone’s name right now).

Obama would be the latest edition to a long list of political airport eponyms that already includes the 41st President George H W Bush (Houston) – not his son George W ‘Dubya’ Bush who has no lasting airport memorial for now at least -; Gerald R Ford (the not so grand Grand Rapids Airport, Michigan); Ronald Reagan (Reagan National Airport, Washington DC); and probably the best known of them all, John F Kennedy (New York). ‘JFK’ actually has two. The J F Kennedy Memorial Airport in Ashland, Wisconsin is also named for the assassinated 35th President.

The Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport, named after probably the most famous of the US’ historical Presidents and arguably the greatest, can be found at one of the many Springfields (the most popular name for a town or city in the US and where ‘The Simpsons’ live), this one at Springfield, Illinois, where ‘Abe’ lived. In the US at least it is not only large city or hub airports that are named in honour of senior politicians.

There are many politicians immortalised in runway tarmac in the US but Presidential name selections are relatively few and that broadly is the case in most other countries. Canada’s main claim to fame is Montreal’s Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport, one that is perhaps not as influential as was the former French-Canadian Prime Minister, who began his political life as a Parliamentary Secretary to Lester B Pearson (who, of course, is immortalized at Toronto’s main airport).

In 2014 MPETIA carried only 14.8 million passengers, a small figure for Canada’s second city and a mere 38% of the total at Toronto Pearson, despite 5.3% annual growth. There is increasing concern amongst the city’s politicians over this poor performance, which is heavily influenced by lower taxes at airports in nearby New York State in the US. Meanwhile no passengers at all now use Montreal’s Mirabel Airport, the 1975 white elephant that was once the world’s largest by size, and which was named after the suburb of that name.

The UK is a country that has usually avoided political name attachments. Most of the main airports in London (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted etc) and the regions (Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh etc) carry no political appendage. In fact, with little imagination being employed, airports in Britain are or were typically named after the suburb or locality in which they are found (Manchester Ringway, Liverpool Speke, Birmingham Elmdon, Glasgow Abbotsinch, Edinburgh Turnhouse and so on). The main bone of contention is whether or not to describe them as ‘International’ Airport, whether they actually are or not.

This state of affairs is representative of a wider trend in the UK which can best be demonstrated in the example of the legendary 1970s new town of Milton Keynes, about 50 miles (80 km) north of London and now Britain’s fastest growing city and with more finance houses than Zurich. It was named after the villages of Milton and Keynes over which it was built, not the economists Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes as is often assumed.

Several airports could have a claim on Sir Winston Churchill

There are the beginnings of an interesting debate in the UK though, over the future naming of Heathrow Airport. In the year of the 50th anniversary of the death of celebrated wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill (who is generally regarded as Britain’s greatest ever citizen), a councillor in Maidenhead, close to Heathrow Airport, has begun a campaign to rename London Heathrow Airport after Churchill. Heathrow Airport has not responded to the suggestion though it is not likely to until the final results of the Airports Commissions on UK runway capacity are delivered early in Jun-2015.

This actually raises an interesting question as to which airport might claim to ‘own’ a politician’s name where several are in the frame. There are two or three others that might well lodge a claim in Churchill’s case, including Manchester, where Churchill entered politics – quite by chance – and subsequently won his first Parliamentary seat (Oldham 1900-1906) and then went on later to represent Manchester North West. Later still he represented two separate constituencies in Essex (closest airports London Stansted and London Southend) and Dundee in Scotland.

Yet, there seems to be no interest shown by Manchester Airports Group, which owns both Manchester and Stansted airports, even in merely examining the case for renaming either airport after a statesman who is almost universally revered (even if such reverence is open to question).

There are several exceptions to this general rule in the UK, where airports have been overtly renamed after ‘celebrities,’ the best known being Liverpool and Belfast City airports, and where attachment to a highly regarded historical figure is – again – under consideration, this time at Birmingham. These exceptions will be examined later.

Briefly, other notable ‘politicians’ (the word is sometimes used loosely here) who have found themselves attached to airports, whether they like it or not (and most are well beyond caring) include:

Napoleon Bonaparte (Ajaccio, Corsica, France);

Alexander the Great (who is immortalised at two airports, in Greece and Macedonia);

David Ben Gurion (Tel Aviv, Israel);

Yasser Arafat (Rafah, Gaza Strip);

Rafic Hariri (Assassinated former Prime Minister of Lebanon: Beirut):

Charles de Gaulle (Paris, France);

Gengis Kahn (Ulan Bator, Mongolia);

Lech Walesa (Gdansk, Poland);

Indira Gandhi (Delhi, India. There are no airports named after Mahatama Gandhi but plenty of other transport facilities in India are);

Benazir Bhutto (Assassinated former Prime Minister of Pakistan: Rawalpindi);

Jomo Kenyatta (Nairobi, Kenya);

Konrad Adenaur (first post-war German Chancellor, Cologne, Germany);

Oliver Tambo (ANC leader: Johannesburg, South Africa);

Adolpho Suarez (Spain’s first democratically elected prime minister after Franco, Madrid – but only from 2014);

Simon Bolivar (Leader of five countries to independence from Spain: twice, at Columbian and Venezuelan airports);

Imam Khomeini (Tehran, Iran);

Vaclav Havel (Prague, Czech Republic).

Additionally, Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore) – a proposal in Apr-2015 to rename Singapore‘s Changi Airport that arose from a public petition and will now be presented to the Government for consideration.

One potential issue that can arise when an airport is named for political reasons is that the politician falls out of favour. That can prompt awkward deliberations as to whether the airport should be renamed.

Baghdad International Airport was previously Saddam International Airport, ironically now a name that suggests, if nothing else, greater national unity than exists at present. Addis Ababa’s Bole International Airport once carried the name of Emperor Haile Selassie, revered by Rastafarians as the returning messiah, but is now recognized by the bland name of a suburb.

South African airports eradicate all apartheid era traces, but no place yet for Mandela

The principal three South African airports dropped their apartheid era names. Johannesburg’s Jan Smuts became O (Oliver) R Tambo; Cape Town’s D F Malan simply reverted to Cape Town and gained ‘International;’ while Durban’s Louis Botha also became Durban International before closing down altogether in 2010 to be turned into a container storage yard and replaced by the green field King Shaka International Airport, named for a 19th century Zulu leader.

Away from the ‘golden triangle’ of the Republic’s three main commercial cities, the name of another apartheid era leader, B J Vorster, who was in power at the time of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment, was quietly removed from what is now plain Kimberley Airport, at the centre of South Africa’s diamond mining region.

Strangely, perhaps, there is no Nelson Mandela airport yet in South Africa, though there surely will be one day. But there is a Nelson Mandela Airport – at Praia on the island of Santiago, the capital of Cape Verde; a country that prospered from South African Airways flights that landed there to refuel en route Europe and the Americas during the period when they were not permitted to overfly a raft of African states. The naming was not without controversy.

There are few other countries where the march of history is better demonstrated than in South Africa’s renaming of its airports but Bolivia (named after the hitherto-mentioned Simon Bolivar) has a shot at it. No friend to the US during the Eva Morales presidency since 2005, Bolivia renamed El Alto, the world’s highest international airport, from its previous moniker, J F Kennedy (again) but in its defence that was before Morales took office and the name was rarely used in public anyway. Had the Morales government chosen to do it the already tense stand-off between the two countries might have been further heightened.

Simon Bolivar crops up again in Ecuador where another airport named after him at Guayaquil was renamed Jose Joaquin de Olmedo International in honour of a former President, Mayor of Guayaquil and a renowned poet. At least on this occasion there was no obvious political motive. It was merely felt that there were too many Simon Bolivar airports.

Politics most definitely played a part in the Philippines though, where former First Lady Imelda Marcos’ (of the shoes) name was removed from what is now plain Mati Airport and in Taiwan, where Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (he of the ‘White Terror’) suffered a similar fate, being erased from the nameplate of what is now Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.

Royalty ranks higher than religion in airport naming

Aside from politics, the names of religious leaders and of royalty can be found at airports, the latter with much greater frequency. Religious ones include the same Pope (John Paul II) at both of the Krakow, Poland and Ponta Delgada (in the Portuguese Azores) airports. St Paul the Apostle Airport can be found at Ohrid in Macedonia.

There are no other Popes or Apostles that we know of but the beatified Mother Teresa of Calcutta is recognised at Tirana Airport in Albania. While she was of Macedonia origin, her parents were Albanian.

The names of Kings and Queens are attached to five airports, three of them in Saudi Arabia (Abdulaziz/Jeddah, Fahd/Dammam and Khalid/Riyadh), together with the aforementioned King Shaka at Durban, South Africa and (King) Tribhuvan airport in Nepal. There are two Queens (Alia at Amman, Jordan and Beatrix at Oranjestad, Aruba and one Princess (Juliana, at Sint Maarten in the Netherlands Antilles).

Sultans are far more numerous, 11 in total, and all in Malaysia (six) or Indonesia (five). (A number of Indonesian airports are also named after ‘national heroes’).

Renowned aviators do make the list but not as often as might be expected. Lyon’s (France) main airport is named after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who was an all round polymath: an aristocrat, writer and poet as well as a pioneer of flight. Istanbul’s fast growing second airport carries the name of Sabiha Gökçen, an adopted daughter of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish state, and the first Turkish female combat pilot. The Wright Brothers are recognised at Dayton–Wright Brothers Airport in Dayton, Ohio, USA but it is only a reliever/general aviation facility.

The final ‘category’ so to speak is the most intriguing one and might be referred to as the weird and wacky. They are, though, few and far between. Airports are a serious business. They include another flying ace, Billy Bishop, a Canadian First World War pilot, if only because he turns up twice; once at the Toronto City Airport that has recently changed hands in a sale-and-leaseback deal (an unusual arrangement in the airports business) and secondly at Owen Sound/Billy Bishop Airport, also in the province of Ontario. There are limited commercial flights at the latter but the potential for confusion is evident.

Greece is strong on names of characters from ancient history. The Greek physician Hippocrates is immortalised at the Kos International Airport, the island on which he was born, while the ancient Greek boxer Diagoras of Rhodes is celebrated at the airport of that name on the island of Rhodes. In the UK it still perplexes some people as to why the owners of Doncaster-Sheffield Airport, which opened in 2005, gave it the title ‘Robin Hood’ after the heroic outlaw of popular English folklore.

He is more typically associated with Sherwood Forest, some distance from the airport and the naming occasioned a petition against it. One airport is even named after a piece of music – Linz Blue Danube Airport in Austria is named after Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube Waltz of 1866. Bizarrely, Sétif International Airport 08 May 1945 was named after a massacre.

There have been few academic studies to date

The naming of an airport is evidently taken seriously even if the result is sometimes a little difficult to understand. Surprisingly, there has been little in the way of academic research into the subject but a doctoral thesis was prepared in 2011 by a student, Uttam Kumar Regmi, who is also an aviation lecturer in Nepal specialising in the marketing and economics of airports. The following sections are based on interpretations of the content and data of that thesis. Comments in brackets (parentheses)/italics indicate an observation by the CAPA author on the student’s remarks.

The study investigated the use of brand names and slogans at 1,562 airports worldwide using content analysis of airport websites. The broad conclusions are:

  • Over 75% of airports worldwide are named after a single place;
  • 20% of world airports are not named after a place, and this is particularly common for airports in Latin America and the Caribbean where almost half of airports in that region are not named after a place. Instead, they tend to be named after a famous person, especially a political leader and/or revolutionary;
  • Almost half of airports worldwide name their airport after the scope of services available, and this is always in addition to, as opposed to in place of, an existing name.

Significant differences exist between world regions. Naming an airport after natural or man-made

attractions is most common in Europe; after a political leader and/or revolutionary is most common in Latin America/the Caribbean; and after royalty is most common in the Middle East (as above).

Only 10% (also reported in the study to be 13%) of all airports use a slogan and this is mainly a North American phenomenon. A more detailed analysis of airports in Europe finds that one-quarter of airports have two or more place names; one is typically the name of the place in which the airport is located, while the other tends to be the name of the nearest main city or town. (Often such an outcome will be driven by the demands of a low cost airline that wishes to emphasize the proximity of an airport to a major city or conurbation, even if it is not proximate at all, as in the case for example of Frankfurt Hahn, Stockholm Skavsta and Paris Beauvais airports. This trend may begin to reduce as the main European LCCs focus their growth more on primary airports).

Including a reference to the scope of services available at the airport is significantly more common at larger versus smaller airports in Europe. The use of a slogan is significantly more common at airports in Europe that are owned or operated by private interests compared to those that are publicly owned and operated.

So the naming of airports worldwide is widespread while the employment of slogans is limited. In Europe in particular the use of airport names and slogans varies according to the size of the airport and style of corporate governance.

Airports are typically not strong at marketing a brand

Historically, the study says, airports have been behind their airline counterparts in terms of marketing, failing to demonstrate professionalism and lacking a proactive or dynamic approach. However, airport marketing has developed rapidly in this sense during the last few decades, many of them establishing marketing departments during the 1990s, led by the UK.

Citing brand theory, the study says the most fundamental element of brand awareness is the brand name. It must be distinctive, memorable, easy to pronounce and meaningful (whether in real or emotional terms). An extension of the brand name is to have a slogan which is a memorable phrase that says something about who the company is and what it does.

Using location as the defining reason for naming an airport has its dangers. The study mentions an example of one area that co-operated to find an acceptable umbrella name – Tri-Cities, which covers parts of Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and North Carolina. It also refers to what was East Midlands Airport in the UK, to which Nottingham was added as the neighboring ‘main city’ in 2003.

But the other two principal cities of the area – Leicester and Derby – are closer to the airport and were added following protests in 2006, resulting in the ridiculously cumbersome “East Midlands Airport – Nottingham Leicester Derby,” which is hardly ever used. Rather, it is still just plain ‘East Midlands’ to most people.

Some reference is made to ‘famous persons,’ some of which are mentioned in the prior text. But little is reported about ‘celebrity’ naming, the main focus of this short report, despite the fact that naming in recognition of the famous in general made up a high proportion of airport names in all regions at the time the academic study was undertaken, varying from a low of 10.4% of all names in Europe to 42.2% in Latin America and the Caribbean (an average of 19.3% across all regions). Indeed the word ‘celebrity’ does not appear in the report even though it could be argued that celebrity is a significant sub-category of ‘famous’.

Everyone’s a celebrity, sporting and singing

In 2015 the rule of thumb is that the most famous – apart from some members of Royalty and very serious politicians – are ‘celebrities,’ and most frequently those in the sports, acting and musical performance fields. As long ago as 1966 John Lennon, then of The Beatles, declared that he was ‘bigger than’ (interpreted by the media as ‘more popular than’) Jesus. The attachment of the name of such persons to an airport is more likely to generate newspaper column inches and public intrigue than any other category.

CAPA undertook its own short study of the phenomenon of naming an airport after a celebrity (see later). The results seem to indicate that not a great deal of thought is attached to the power of a celebrity name to attract passenger business or investment. This is also rather surprising. Airport naming rights (to third parties) has increased in value as a non-aeronautical revenue generating tool during the past decade, especially so in the case of ‘low cost’ airports and terminals, which typically attract more leisure passengers that might be influenced by a particular name. This is the case in the US as well as Europe and Asia, where private airports developed outside the FAA’s remit can offer certain facilities to airlines that those within that framework cannot, and can develop unconventional revenue streams, such as offering naming rights and other sponsorship opportunities.

The best example (in fact the only one to date – setting up such a private airport in the US is no easy task) is Branson Airport, Missouri, which apart from being the only privately owned, privately operated commercial service airport in the US (it opened in May-2009) is a nationally known centre for live music performances, on a par with Nashville and Austin.

And yet there has been no formal brand naming of Branson Airport so far, nor does it even carry a slogan.


  • Most airports are named after a single place. Where they are named after a person it is most frequently politicians, royalty or religious figures. There can be hidden dangers in doing so;
  • The use of celebrity names is not widespread. Some of the best examples can be found in the UK;
  • There is little evidence of formal, structured evaluation of the financial benefits of airport naming, including celebrity naming;
  • Some airports do not use the names of entities or individuals when there would be an obvious benefit. But they may ‘play’ on the name in other ways;
  • Some trade associations are not convinced of the value of these naming activities as it can generate confusion;
  • The adoption of a slogan may potentially be hazardous and needs to be thought through. Often they appear humorous but one person’s humor can be another’s insult.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s