Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jetset: Airport Insider

The lowdown on airport codes

Ever wondered about the three-letter airport codes on your air tickets, boarding passes and checked luggage tags? In the age of LOL and BRB, knowing the difference between SHA and PVG will help ensure you and your belongings reach the desired destination.

Many of the codes are obvious even to casual fliers, as they are derived from the cities they serve. SHA stands for Shanghai – specifically, the older Hongqiao airport, whereas the newer Pudong airport gets PVG. Decades after the introduction of pinyin, however, many Chinese airport codes still reflect the old-style spelling of their cities. Beijing (Peking) retains PEK while Guangzhou (Canton) remains CAN. My personal favorite is the spiritual TAO for Qingdao (Tsingtao), which boasts a famous Taoist mountain – Laoshan – on its outskirts.

Some codes for international airports seem random at first. Why is Chicago O’Hare coded ORD? And if you’re headed to Disneyworld in Florida, why is Orlando’s airport MCO? Everything suddenly makes sense when you realize that O’Hare was built in an area formerly known as Orchard Place, and that the Orlando airport used to be McCoy Air Force Base (though many now joke that MCO stands for “Mickey and Company”).

Then there are the memorable ones – for reasons good or bad. Finnair often offers the cheapest fare to Europe from China via its hub in Helsinki. Could this be because passengers have reservations about going through HEL? And for a nation as polite as Japan, airport officials in the city of Fukuoka must feel at least a bit awkward to welcome visitors to FUK.

Interesting codes aside, what makes or breaks an airport remains simple: user-friendliness. Compared to other modern mega-hubs in the region like Hong Kong and Singapore, Chinese mainland airports still have a lot catching up to do. Luckily for us, Beijing’s airport – like everything else – is getting an extreme makeover ahead of the Olympics. Some current improvements which will likely lead to future bliss include:

- Rail links to the city center: Beijing Subway’s airport line will begin whisking passengers to and from Dongzhimen in June 2008.
- Seamless connections: the airport is working with airlines to offer true connecting flights, which means no more claiming bags and exiting before checking in again for a “connection.”
- Real food/beverage and retail options: everyone is sick and tired of paying 60 kuai for a bowl of mysterious “chicken nourish a gruel” (translation: nutritious chicken congee). Starbucks and KFC are a decent start, at least, with more on the way.

I hope the day will come when all Chinese airports receive similar treatment, so frequent fliers won’t be mad at smelly bathrooms (everyone needs to pee) or the lack of healthy food choices (no one wants to get fat). And there should be some nice stores on the way too – after all, it’s not a sin to do a bit of last-minute shopping before the flight. Then, hopefully, people won’t refer to the average Chinese airport as a pit anymore. Steven Jiang

(How many airport codes did you find in the last paragraph? See the answers next month.)

This article was originally published on page 146 of the July 2007 issue of That's Beijing magazine.

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