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Why Your Relatives Fly Into MCI, Not KCI, When They Come To Kansas City

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KCUR 89.3
In Kansas City, people typically refer to the airport as KCI, even though its actual code is MCI. Turns out, that's pretty common.

As the winter holiday season comes to a close and friends and family fly back home, there may be a three-letter detail that you can't seem to reconcile while checking in for flights at Kansas City International Airport: KCI.

If the name of the airport is Kansas City International, shouldn't the code — which is actually MCI — reflect that? 

Not necessarily, says Justin Meyer, the deputy director of aviation at the Kansas City Aviation department. 

"It's actually a very common occurrence that regional areas call their airports something different than the official IATA  (International Air Transport Association) code or ICEO (International Civil Aviation Organization) code," Meyer says. 

In Orange County, California, for example, people refer to John Wayne Airport as JWA, even though the airport code is SNA. In Colorado, the code for Denver International Airport is DEN, though people usually just call it DIA.

Meyer says what we know today as Kansas City International Airport was assigned its code well before the three horseshoe-shaped terminals opened in 1972. 

"The airport and the airfield actually opened in the mid 1950s and was an overhaul base for Trans World Airlines," Meyer says. That airport was called Mid-Continent International Airport, and received the official code of MCI.

"At that time, the Kansas City Municipal Airport, or what we call now the Charles B. Wheeler downtown airport, was the primary airport for Kansas City," Meyer says. 

It wasn't until commercial air service was moved from the downtown airport to the one in the Northland that the Mid-Continent International was re-named Kansas City International. The code, however, stayed the same. 

Meyer points out that in the lower 48, all ICAO codes actually start with a "K", so the airport's full identifier is KMCI. 

Some airports, like Key West International in Florida, have taken advantage of that extra letter to make their codes match the airport name.

"Their three-letter identifier is EYW, but with the fourth digit being the preceding K that identifies U.S. lower 48 airports, the Key West four-letter identifier is KEYW, which is pretty crafty," Meyer says. 

There used to be an airport in Indonesia whose identifier was KCI, but the code is currently not in use.

For those hoping that the construction of a new terminal could be an opportunity to change the three-letter identifier, keep dreaming. Current FAA regulations make it extremely difficult to change airport codes, Meyer says. Besides, it could be worse.

"There are several other airports that have less enjoyable three-letter codes, such as Sioux City, Iowa, which is SUX, that have talked about trying to change their three-letter code but have been unsuccessful on that front," Meyer says. 

So, for the foreseeable future, KCI will remain MCI. 

Lisa Rodriguez is a reporter and the afternoon newscaster for KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter @larodrig

Slow news days are a thing of the past. As KCUR’s news director, I want to cut through the noise, provide context to the headlines, and give you news you can use in your daily life – information that will empower you to make informed decisions about your neighborhood, your city and the region. Email me at lisa@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @larodrig.
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