Why Are Airports Named After U.S. presidents?

Donald Trump has been in the news for wanting to rename Palm Beach International Airport after him. But why do airports often name themselves after presidents and how do they decide which president to choose?

This article looks at the airports within the U.S named after presidents and looks at the likely reason the airport was named after them.

A few forewords, when referring to how busy an airport is compared to another, pre-covid figures are used. This article also only looks at commercial airports, there are several General Aviation airports named after presidents who have not been included.

Why are some airports named after presidents?

The reason for airports being named after presidents vary. 

Most airports named after presidents in the U.S have been renamed relatively recently (majority late 90’s onwards). A big reason for this is to ensure all airports have unique names and codes.

For example, the state of New York has 16 commercial airports. If every airport was named New York airport then this would cause obvious confusion for passengers buying tickets.

Airports are given 3 letter codes called IATA codes (which you have probably seen on your tickets or baggage). If all the New York airports were named a variation of NYX then you can easily see how passengers may book onto the wrong airport.  

Another reason may be to commemorate the passing of a president or someone who has made a big contribution to the place the airport is located. For example, they are often a senator for the region before the name change. 

Also, the airport gains a certain level of prestige when a president is associated with it. This may encourage more people to visit if they have respect for the aforementioned president.

John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) – New York, New York

John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) is the busiest airport within New York as well as on this list.

The airport was originally called Idlewild Airport (named after the golf club it had displaced) when the first flight took off in 1948. 

When John F Kennedy was tragically assassinated on 22nd November 1963, the mayor of New York (Mayor Robert F. Wagner, Jr.) proposed renaming the airport in his honor.

A month and 2 days after the assassination, the airport was officially renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport.

George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) – Houston, Texas

George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) is the second busiest airport on this list. The airport opened in 1969 and was originally named Houston Intercontinental Airport.

Later it was renamed after George H. W. Bush, the 41st president of the United States.

George H. W. Bush had a strong affinity to Houston. He had served as a representative for Texas at the start of his political career. Also, when his presidential campaign had ended, he lived the rest of his life in Houston. 

The above made him an obvious candidate for the name of the airport when they were looking to rebrand. In April 1997, Houston City Council unanimously voted to rename the airport George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) – Washington, DC

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport is the second busiest airport in Washington D.C. behind Washington Dulles International Airport (but only just).

In 1938 there was a need to add additional capacity to the airports around the capital. However, at the time there was a statute that prohibited the federal development of airports.

Congress lifted the prohibition and provided $15 million (worth several hundred million in today’s money) to build a brand new airport, named at the time as Washington National Airport. The airport opened on June 16, 1941.

The airport was owned and run by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) up until 1987 when it was handed over to a private company the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA).

On February 6, 1998, President Bill Clinton signed legislation changing the airport’s name from Washington National Airport to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, to honor the former president on his 87th birthday.

Looking down at JFK airport
Looking down while taking off from JFK New York

Interestingly, the MWAA did not want to incur the expenses needed to change signs and their branding and so fought it in court. Part of their argument against this was that the airport was already named after a president (George Washington).

They lost the case and were forced to change the name. But in a way, this is the only airport with 2 presidents in the title.

Gerald R. Ford International Airport (GRR) – Grand Rapids, Michigan

Gerald R. Ford International Airport is a relatively small domestic airport. It is the second-largest airport in Michigan after Detroit Metropolitan Airport. 

The airport opened as the Kent County Airport in November 1963, and later became Kent County International Airport on January 27, 1977.

In December 1999 the airport was renamed for Gerald R. Ford, the 40th Vice President and the 38th President of the United States. This was as a result of Ford representing the Grand Rapids area in the United States House of Representatives from 1949 to 1973.

When Gerald Ford passed a presidential jet carried his remains to the airport with his name as part of his funeral service.

Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport (SPI) – Springfield, Illinois

Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport is a small airport with joint military and civil use. It is the seventh busiest airport of the 12 commercial airports in Illinois.

The original name of the airport was Capital Airport and was opened on November 2nd, 1947. The name wasn’t changed until 2004, where the ‘Abraham Lincoln’ was added to the start.

Abraham Lincoln lived in Springfield Illinois for a large part of his life. He, therefore, made an obvious choice for the airport when having to rename to distinguish from other capital airports. 

Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport (LIT) – Little Rock, Arkansas

Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport is a small airport in Arkansas, operating domestic-only flights. It is the largest commercial airport in Arkansas.

Originally named Adams Field after Captain George Geyer Adams, who was a counselor for Little Rock as well as the chairman of the Airport Committee. Unfortunately, George died in a propeller explosion, and so was named after him in his honor.

The airport was renamed the Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport, after the 42nd United States President Bill Clinton and his wife, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on March 20, 2012. 

The name Adams Field will continue to be used when referring to the airport’s runways and air traffic and will be the airport’s official designator.

Bill Clinton was born in Little Rock and served as a governor for Arkansas before becoming President and his Wife Hillary served as the First Lady of Arkansas. With such strong connections to the area, they are a logical presidential name for the airport. 

Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport (ICT) – Wichita, Kansas

Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport is the largest airport in Kansas serving domestic flights. The airport was originally called Wichita Municipal Airport and has operated since 1924. 

On March 4, 2014, the airport’s name was changed to Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport, in honor of the 34th president Dwight D. Eisenhower. 

Dwight was a native of Kansas, so had a natural connection to the airport.

Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport (DIK) – Dickinson, North Dakota

Dickinson Theodore Roosevelt Regional Airport is the smallest airport on this list. It was previously named Dickinson Municipal Airport when it opened in 1959.

The airport was renamed after Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the 26th President of the United States. Roosevelt lived in North Dakota in a cowboy fashion and even has a national park nearby named after him.

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