Allen Amsbaugh writes (originally for NASA’s ASRS Directline) about “an intriguing intersection of aviation and language which shows just how important it is to consider the human factor, even for something simple like naming airspace fixes”:

Over the years, the ASRS has received many reports regarding navigational identifiers that sound similar to other fixes, or are not spelled in a logical fashion. Two caught my eye recently and were the impetus for this article. The first incident was reported by two crew members. One of these reporters stated:

“Enroute to PDX from DEN. Near BOI cleared direct DUFUR, direct PDX. Inadvertently spelled DUFER into the FMC. Note: DUFER is 14 DME, ILS 16R Seattle. Since the course seemed reasonable, I did not double-check for route deviation DUFER to PDX. A lesson learned! I am surprised that two intersections would be so close with similar names.” (# 258559, 258669)

SEA is about 50 miles farther from BOI than PDX, and about 17 degrees farther to the north. The ARTCC Controller rectified the situation by a gentle, “Where are you going?” The ASRS has issued a For Your Information Notice to the appropriate agencies and FAA offices in an attempt to rectify this problem. It was recommended that the name be changed on one of the intersections. We all hope that one of the spellings will not be changed to DOOFR!

There are plenty more examples, including the one from which I took my post title:

“Controller gave route change ‘Direct PERRI intersection, J8 OTT, OTT 3 arrival KBWI.’ He spelled out the intersection. The Captain began programming the FMS while we both reached for enroute charts. The Captain loaded ‘Direct PERRY,’ and the course indicated about 140° which was reasonable from the assigned 090° heading. The FMS would not accept J8, and we began to analyze why. TCAS II indicated traffic which was descending through our altitude and a potential conflict. The Captain initiated a left turn to avoid the traffic. Center issued a ‘Left turn immediately!’ and then assigned 100° [heading]. The conflict could have been averted by my verifying PERRI versus PERRY as the FMS entry. The Controller spelled out P-E-R-R-I, and I wrote it down correctly, but did not verify the Captain’s input…” (# 264927)

This error resulted in a traffic conflict because of the wrong heading. The Controller wanted the reporter to go to PERRI, a fix east of Charleston, WV, while the Captain entered PERRY, a fix southeast of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean! The FMS would not take J8 from PERRY because PERRY is not on J8, but PERRI is. Both man (the Controller) and machine (the FMS) tried to help this crew—to no avail.

Thanks, hat_eater!


  1. About which (and about “irregardless,” in LH recently),

  2. As a Parry, I’ve always explained that the E in Perry is for “error” so people would stop spelling my name incorrectly. Until, of course, I met folks from areas with a lot of Iranian influence and had to explain that I’m not a Peri, either. Though, rather a Peri than a Perry (and both better than Perrier, natch).

    In Georgian, it becomes even more fun where I go by პერი:p’eri (with an ejective P), to differentiate from ფერი:peri:color, which is used in things like ყველაფერი:qvelaperi:everything, lit. all colors and არაფერი:araperi:nothing, lit. no colors. Or, ფარი:pari:shield, or even პარი:p’ari:a village I stayed in (specifically because we shared the name).

    Having never met another Parry, I sought out a wine bar in Amsterdam called Parry. Unfortunately, it was from the owner’s last name, and they didn’t know the history of their own last name. I presume it is the same as mine, from Welsh “ap Harry” (son of Harry).

  3. Owlmirror says

    Isn’t this exactly why the NATO phonetic alphabet is supposed to be used in verbal communications? “Echo” does not sound like “Uniform”; “Yankee” does not sound similar to “India”.

    Also from the OP:

    The English language has come a long way from its Latin roots wherein pronunciation has very strong rules

    Someone is confused about both English and Latin.

  4. Having never met another Parry, …

    I immediately thought of this Parry, for his contributions to Grove’s Dictionary of Music, and for encouraging the English revival in composition. (Oh and embarrassingly for totally missing Blake’s irony in Jerusalem so getting the darned tune adopted by the British Establishment/Women’s Institute.)

    But that Parry is Welsh, and a surname.

  5. Also, tune up the gusle and go oral with Milman. (And autocorrect thinks Milman meant “hustle.”)

  6. Waypoints are designed to be pronounceable as words, and in the context of a given route they’d normally be unambiguous, even predictable, and don’t need to be spelled out. In this case the controller did spell it out (using the radiotelephony alphabet presumably), but the pilot still picked the wrong one from the database. That’s a problem that couldn’t have arisen in the days of paper charts.

  7. PlasticPaddy says

    This would seem to be a problem with the tool for confirming course updates with one new point. A graphic with two labeled (distance explicit, direction implicit) vectors should allow the pilot to see if the change is what was intended.

  8. True, I think the navigation display would show exactly that. Maybe an enormous dog-leg in your new route won’t show up if it’s zoomed in too tight? Dunno.

  9. AJP Crown says

    Why doesn’t LAX have a proper name? There’s Heathrow, OHare, Charles de Gaulle and then something that looks like a proprietary laxative. At least with SFO no one actually calls it that but people in LA just seem to prefer initials. JFK at least give me a respectable mental image.

  10. @AJP, having spent a half-decade of my life flying in and out of SFO, I would bet dollars to donuts my colleagues and I referred to SFO by its initials an order of magnitude more than as “San Fransisco”. Oakland was always “Oakland”, San Jose was always “San Jose”, but sometimes Sacramento was “Sack”.

    LAX is just “Los Angeles International Airport”, so there’s no other “name” to use. Specifically saying LAX, at least in my usage, helps to distinguish between any of the other smaller LA area airports one could fly into.

  11. “Charles de Gaulle” is usually called “Roissy” in France. Tourists who take the Metro instead of the RER (or the Roissybus) may end up at Charles de Gaulle–Étoile instead of the airport.

  12. Just as tourists in Istanbul who want to go to Topkapı Palace can wind up at the other end of town.

  13. AJP Crown says

    pc: LAX is just “Los Angeles International Airport”, so there’s no other “name” to use.
    That’s my point.

    my colleagues and I referred to SFO by its initials an order of magnitude more than as “San Fransisco”
    It was always just called “the airport” when I lived there, back in the 1930s. Ok, the 1970s – 80s.

  14. Jen in Edinburgh says

    What other name should an airport have? Edinburgh is just Edinburgh and Glasgow just Glasgow (unless you’re old enough to think of them as Turnhouse and Abbotsinch, I suppose.)

    When I think about it, JFK and CDG seem a bit odd, as I expect personal names on airports to be merely frills – I can’t imagine someone talking about flying to John Lennon or George Best, even when you have Belfast International to get mixed up with in the latter case.

  15. AJP Crown says

    “Charles de Gaulle” is usually called “Roissy” in France.
    I haven’t been to Paris for 25 years but this is similar to the Centre Pompidou being called le Beaubourg. When all the construction projects are named after a small number of dead politicians, it’s best to stick to the name of the area.

  16. And frankly it’s a good thing LAX doesn’t have another name, because if it had been named for a politician (or, God forbid, police chief) it would almost certainly have to be renamed these days.

  17. AJP Crown says

    Edinburgh is just Edinburgh and Glasgow just Glasgow
    It used to be London Airport, but that could mean Heathrow or Gatwick, never mind Stansted, City Airport, Luton and the rest. I don’t think there was ever New York Airport, only Idlewild > JFK and LaGuardia (and now others like Newark, dreariest airport on earth). So if Edinburgh is just Edinburgh, you’re damned lucky. Oslo is Gardermoen to everyone in Oslo (Amsterdam is Schiphol, Stockholm is Arlanda.)

  18. @AJP, I guess if you’re lucky enough to be able to afford living in San Fransisco these days, you probably call it “the airport”. Only plebeians like myself would fly out of the East Bay.

  19. AJP Crown says

    or, God forbid, police chief
    I was just thinking that too. Chief Ernest J. “Porky” Porker jr Memorial Airport.

  20. I have long wondered why nobody calls JFK “Idlewild” any more. Changing the official name of an airport typically does not seem to change how locals refer to it. For a famous example, people from D. C. do not normally refer to “Reagan” but rather “National.” Yet “JFK” is universal now (and has been for a long time) apparently among both New Yorkers and others passing through. I suppose the fact that the three-letter code, “JFK,” is particularly opportune (as it was already a common way of referring to President Kennedy before the airport was named after him) may have played a role.

  21. AJP Crown says

    Only plebeians like myself would fly out of the East Bay.
    I never thought of the East Bay as plebeian (full marx for knowing how to spell the word – it’s more than I did) but there used to be really fancy Navy jets you could see standing on a runway in Oakland; I think they were protecting me from the USSR.

  22. J.W. Brewer says

    I had thought that LAX had been officially renamed after a former mayor even though no one actually called it “Bradley,” but after googling my memory it turns out that that former mayor is merely honored by the name of the Tom Bradley International Terminal. I guess the other terminals and the airport as a whole remain available as “naming opportunities,” as they call them in the university fundraising business.

  23. AJP Crown says

    people from D. C. do not normally refer to “Reagan” but rather “National.” Yet “JFK” is universal
    Yeah, but JFK is a national figure whereas Reagan never will be as long as the boomer generation is still alive. I’d certainly go out of my way to never call something “Reagan”. Maybe Newark airport.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    Airports are horrible, soulless places that one is normally only too glad to see the back of. It seems entirely appropriate to name them after politicians.

    If they are good politicians, and behave themselves nicely, we might agree not to name airports after them.

    I rather like the sound of “Crippen Airport.”

  25. Some cities are routinely called by their airport codes, like PDX or SLC

  26. Ellen K. says

    Seems like, for out of towners flying to a place, either the city name or a shortened version of the airport name (where it’s not the city name) is standard for referring to what airport we are flying to, or talking about someone flying to.

    With LAX, for those of us who live far from Los Angeles, “fly to Los Angeles” wouldn’t specify Los Angeles International Airport the way “fly to Newark” (for example), specifies Newark Liberty International Airport. “Fly to Los Angeles” is like “Fly to New York”, it doesn’t indicate which airport. So, it’s LAX to specify Los Angeles International Airport.

  27. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    The airport of Santiago has officially been el Aeropuerto Internacional Comodoro Arturo Merino Bení­tez since1980, but absolutely no one calls it that, and if you do remember all those words and get them in the right order people won’t know what you mean. They call it Pudahuel, as they always have.

    However, it can also work the other way round. Most people know what Charles de Gaulle is, but most people who are not French don’t have any idea what Roissy is. It can be very confusing.

  28. Trond Engen says

    The problem is that one name is used internationally and another locally. Norwegian airports have local placenames: Gardermoen (replaced Fornebu) for Oslo, Flesland for Bergen, Værnes for Trondheim, Sola for Stavanger, etc. We fly to Kastrup in Copenhagen, Arlanda in Stockholm, Heathrow, Gatwick or Stansted in London, and Schiphoel in Amsterdam. Roissy in Paris shouldn’t be difficult or unexpected. But it is.

  29. John Cowan says

    and now others like Newark

    Newark Airport opened in 1928, making it in fact the oldest NYC-area full-service airport. Indeed, it was Mayor Fiorello La Guardia himself who announced when he arrived at Newark that his ticket said “New York” (which it did) and that he wanted to be flown to New York. The plane flew on to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn (now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area), and La Guardia set the wheels in motion to rebuild the small airport on northern shore of Queens as a commercial operation. It opened in 1939, but wasn’t renamed “La Guardia” until after his death.

    why nobody calls JFK “Idlewild” any more

    “Idlewild” was not a geographical name; it was only the name of the Idlewild Beach Golf Course, part of which now forms the airport. This in turn had been named after the nearby Idlewild Park, apparently so called because at the turn of the 20C it had been a playground for the rich (and some locals).

    Reagan never will be as long as the boomer generation is still alive

    You betcha. It’s “Washington National” to Gale and me.

  30. Dmitry Pruss says

    Some of the least transparent airport cases are the codes which commemorate people even when the airport names themselves don’t.
    Kahului Airport on Maui is coded OGG after Captn. Pilot Hogg, an executive of Hawaiian Airlines. I doubt if even locals know that the three letters came from this aviator.

  31. Trond Engen says

    OGG after Captn. Pilot Hogg

    H-less Awaiian Henglish?
    Or “Oh God! Gravity!”

  32. City of Derry Airport in Northern Ireland retains the LDY code from when it was Londonderry. Locals call it Eglinton so you can’t tell their religion.

  33. I’m semi-local, Dmitry, and yes I always wondered about OGG. I also wonder about ITO for Hilo on the next island over, though there are lots of Itos in Hawaii, with its large Japanese-American population. The airport itself was formerly known as General Lyman Field.

    But I think my favorite airport code is nice chemical-euphonious AZO in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a pharmaceutical manufacturing town.

  34. PlasticPaddy says

    So hog was taken and hgg is not prononounceable (hygge? ). Leaving OGG.

  35. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I do say Gardermoen, but that might be partly because when I first went to Norway Ryanair flew cheaply to Torp, and ‘Oslo Torp’ is the same kind of abomination as ‘Glasgow Prestwick’.

    I’m aware of Kastrup (Jeg sa jeg måtte nå et fly fra Kastrup klokken ni), but wouldn’t say it, and I’ve flown from a different airport in Stockholm…

    Prestwick notwithstanding, only the London airports really have to be distinguished from each other here, and I think they’re all geographical.

  36. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I do get confused by the fact that Edinburgh is EDB in railway code and EDI in airport code, which seems unnecessary – NCL is the same in both, and Glasgow has two main stations to distinguish with GLQ and GLC.

  37. Supposedly ITO got its code because both HIL and ILO were already taken, but yes, the legend mentioned on the government site says that an unnamed Mr. Ito who worked there was another reason.

  38. J.W. Brewer says

    Apparently one of the Heathrow terminals is on a site that once held a buiilding named Heathrow Hall, but it’s not clear to me that that was a particularly prominent or well-known landmark — i.e. that the airport took its name thusly rather than being named after a hypothetical Air Marshal Sir Clive Heathrow is largely irrelevant to its users and doesn’t itself tell you much about the location.

    Thad said, it’s generally true that only cites with two airports of some significance (current or historical) will have the airports commonly referrred to by the general public other than by the name of the city itself. A possible U.S. counterexample is BOS, which is often called Logan rather than Boston even though there is not now or (AFAIK) formerly another major airport nearby from which it needed to be disambiguated. Another scenario is that represented by e.g. John Wayne airport in Orange County, Cal., where there are a bunch of municipalities in the vicinity for which it is the most convenient airport and the city it is technically located in (Santa Ana) is not a dominant metropolis head and shoulders above its neighbors.

  39. Lars Mathiesen says

    CPH is used for Copenhagen in English as written by Danes, but then KBH is a very common abbreviation for København. (Neither acronym nor initialism, but desultory googling nets no other term of art). The official name is just Københavns Lufthavn, Kastrup — there’s a much smaller one near Roskilde mostly used by non-commercial flights.

    Kbh goes way back in official usage, like Kbh H for the central station (hovedbanegård calqued from Hauptbahnhof).

  40. Trond Engen says

    “Oslo Torp” is annoying RyanAir geography. To Norwegians it’s only Torp and has very little to do with Oslo. It’s my local airport (since even more local SKE was closed down). I suppose the F in TRF is whatever letter was free.

    Prestwick’s an interesting airport. The disproportional size and state of disrepair gives it a certain post-apocalyptic charm.

  41. My favorite airport is SBA, which is a charming little “Spanish-style” building from which you still walk right across the tarmac to and from your plane (or so it was last time I was there, which is… over a decade ago now).

  42. January First-of-May says

    Russian airports tend to get their names from a nearby suburb. Kaliningrad’s is Khrabrovo, for example. (IIRC, this isn’t just a Russian thing.)

    Moscow used to have four – Sheremetyevo, Domodedovo, Vnukovo, and Bykovo, though I don’t think there’s any passenger flights from Bykovo any more, and I don’t recall offhand what it got replaced by. (I’ve used all of the other three, though.)

    A few years ago, a contest provided official person-based names for a lot of major Russian airports; I doubt they’re used in practice very much, and I personally would probably have had to look them up.

    Meanwhile, in Israel, Tel Aviv’s airport is Ben Gurion, and (offhand) I’m not aware of any other name for it, though as it’s the only major airport anywhere near Tel Aviv it sometimes gets referred to by the name of the city.

  43. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Whatever the row may have been, it’s definitely a heath – Hounslow Heath, once suitably flat for laying out the Ordnance Survey’s first baseline, and now suitably flat for runways.

    (I like arriving at Prestwick – you definitely know you’re in Scotland. It’s a long way from me, though, although a nice train journey down the coast.)

  44. AJP Crown says

    it’s not clear to me that Heathrow took its name from the location rather than being named after a hypothetical Air Marshal Sir Clive Heathrow
    According to this history:

    About 1410: The first known mention of a semi-rural lane called Heathrow (spelled La Hetherewe).

    This would make Heathrow one of the oldest airports in southeast England, predating powered flight by 500 years.

    I’m glad to see there’s no one logic to these names. I’ll let LAX off the hook, it’s more interesting that way. I think Sydney is called Kingsford Smith airport, named after someone nobody remembers otherwise (unlike Charles de Gaulle and his many structures).

  45. If you are looking for an airport in Stockholm, that would be the Bromma airport. It’s located in the suburb Bromma, naturally. Arlanda is in Märsta, which somehow ended up belonging to the city of Sigtuna.

    Some of those names, like BRIJJ, look quite confusing to me, and I wouldn’t know how to pronounce them at all. It’s a good thing that I’m not a pilot.

  46. Lars Mathiesen says

    Actually the City of Sigtuna was deemed to small (and conservative) so in 1971 it was merged into the majority Social Democratic municipality of Märsta — but using the older name. (Up to 1951 Märsta town was in Husby-Ärlinghundra municipality, but construction at Arlanda started after the larger Märsta municipality was created).

    Sigtuna is rather twee, with the good citizens walking around in late 19th century duds to amuse the tourists. 49 years later there are still people who want to break free from Märsta, but Sigtuna will not be a City again under the current constitution since the King no longer has the power to regrant the privilege (and also it is too small, nothing has really been the same since the Estonian sack of 1187 which made the bishop move to Uppsala).

  47. David Marjanović says

    JFK is more popular the world over than Raygun has ever been in DC.

    Train stations have 3-letter codes in the UK? The only similar case I’m aware of is Flixbus using 3-letter codes internally.

    Vienna’s airport is Schwechat because that’s where it is, likewise for Linz and Hörsching*. Berlin’s are both inside the city, and they’re called Tegel (TXL) and Schönefeld (SXF) after former suburbs; Tegel has “Otto Lilienthal” written on a building, but nobody calls it that even in official capacities…

    * Short /ʃ/, peculiarly.

    And frankly it’s a good thing LAX doesn’t have another name, because if it had been named for a politician (or, God forbid, police chief) it would almost certainly have to be renamed these days.

    Maybe not. I’ve read that the reason Barr’s paralegal paramilitary stormtroopers are sent to Portland rather than LA is that the LAPD is actually quite friendly, while the Portland police is very much “tough on crime” and “we’ve got to dominate the streets”.

    the Estonian sack of 1187

    …whoa. I’ve missed a lot of history there.

  48. Maybe not.

    You should read up on the history of the LA police.

  49. David Marjanović says

    True, the airport would have been named before the Rodney King riots…

  50. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Train stations have 3-letter codes in the UK?

    I don’t know what their original/official purpose is, but I accidentally know quite a few because using them makes booking tickets online a bit quicker – you don’t have to wait for the autosuggest thing to suggest, and you can’t accidentally touch Queen Street when you meant Central and have it tell you no trains exist, because GLC only brings up one option.

    The national rail arrivals thing uses them too –, for example, but changing EDB to GLQ or anything else in the address will take you straight to the page for that station.

    They are official public knowledge, because stations that have boards listing all the trains to every direct destination put them after the station name.

  51. John Cowan says

    Some of those names, like BRIJJ

    Wait, what? Airports are designated by 3-letter IATA codes (used on schedules, tickets, and luggage tags for airports in regularly scheduled commercial passenger service) and by 4-letter ICAO codes. There should be no 5-letter codes for airports.

    The IATA code space also codes for railway stations (at least in US, GB, DE) and for multi-airport cities like NYC (code for LGA, JFK, and EWR collectively. The ICAO codespace is for aerodromes generally (which may be general, commercial, or military, and may carry cargo, passengers, or neither (?)).

    Whereas IATA codes are meant to be mnemonic, ICAO codes use two letters to designate a country (unrelated to ISO 3166-1 codes, alas) and two more for the specific airport in the country. (There are a few exceptions: K for the US, C for CA, Y for AU, M for Mexico, T for the Caribbean countries, where the per-country portion is 3 letters. K, C, and M are based on radio call signs, though the Eastern U.S. is now W.) An aerodrome without an ICAO code is officially ZZZZ, and unofficially uses one of a variety of national systems.

    In the U.S. the system is simple: the national (FAA) codes are generally the same as the IATA codes, and the ICAO codes just prefix the IATA code with K. There are some exceptions where the ICAO code agrees with the FAA code and disagrees with IATA.

    Similarly in Canada, where C is prefixed to the national/IATA code to form the ICAO code. The national code for Canadian aerodromes, though, is decidedly weird. It began life as a two-letter code for cities, and later for weather stations generally. The airports were then coded using an initial letter: Y if the airport had a weather station (if it did not, then Y plus the 2-letter railway station code was used instead), X if there was a code collision with another Canadian airport, or Z if there was a code collision with a U.S. airport.

    As for pronounceability, these codes are spelled out using the ICAO alphabet: Juliet Foxtrot Kilo, for example.

    Lastly, why is Newark Airport coded EWR and New York City coded NYP by Amtrak (long-haul passenger rail)? The Navy grabbed all FAA codes beginning with N, making NEW and NWK unavailable. And Amtrak once served both New York Penn Station and Grand Central Station, the former for southbound trains and for northeastward trains toward Boston, the latter for northward and northwestward trains toward Montreal and Chicago. However, a disused freight connection between Penn Station and the northbound system was reopened for Amtrak’s use, and now Grand Central is for commuter rail only.

  52. Jen in Edinburgh says

    There should be no 5-letter codes for airports.

    As far as I can tell, the five letter names are imaginary places in the air used as waypoints, although the original article was obviously written for people who already knew all about them.

  53. Lars Mathiesen says

    There is lots of history around Lake Mälaren, but it was very hard to defend until the post-glacial rebound closed the waterway to Södertälje and Stockholm was fortified. There has probably been something called Sigtuna for 1500 years, but the trading town at the current location only goes back to 987.

  54. As Jen says, the post and article are about waypoint identifiers, which are five alphanumeric characters, usually all letters, intended to be pronounceable as words.

    ITAWT ITAWA PUDYE TTATT: The Secret Language of the Skies

  55. @January First-of-May:

    in Israel, Tel Aviv’s airport is Ben Gurion, and (offhand) I’m not aware of any other name for it, though as it’s the only major airport anywhere near Tel Aviv it sometimes gets referred to by the name of the city.

    I’ve only ever heard it called Lod/Ludd, after the town where it’s located

  56. A. Sasportas says

    Anomalies abound.

    True, Charles de Gaulle Airport is informally known as Roissy in French – but only about one quarter of the airport (and none of the terminals) is in Roissy-en-France.

    Though the University of Alicante is located in the province of Alicante it is not located in the city of Alicante but in nearby San Vicente del Raspeig (Castilian name) ~ Sant Vicent del Raspeig (Valencian name). Catalogers do not agree on where the books published by its press appear — for the same publication, one library’s catalog record may say Alicante and another, San Vicente del Raspeig or Sant Vicent del Raspeig.

    Sarah Lawrence College is physically located in Yonkers but its postal address is 1 Mead Way, Bronxville NY 10708 because Bronxville is a wealthy area and Yonkers is working-class. The low house number in its postal address adds to its “prestige.”

  57. San Vicente del Raspeig (Castilian name)

    How do Castilian speakers pronounce Raspeig — /rasˈpe/?

  58. I suspect as if it were “Raspey.” In Valencian, of course, it’d be “Raspetch.”

  59. John Cowan says

    Similarly, no part of SFO is in SF or even in a bordering city, although the City/County of SF operates it.

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