RDU: What The Code Doesn’t Stand For

Not a week goes by that I don’t see “the” question in my Twitter feed. Rarely does a week pass without our customer relations team having to answer it either.  “What does the U in RDU stand for?”  It seems everyone is curious about the meaning of our code.  

Most people assume that the R stands for Raleigh and the D for Durham. Then what about the U? Is it because it’s the second letter in Durham? That makes sense, but there are other theories too.

A long time ago there was an article in one of the local newspapers, my colleagues tell me, that asked if the U stood for United. As in Raleigh-Durham United, reflecting an increased partnership between the cities.  No, we can safely say that isn’t so. There are those who think it has something to do with Umstead State Park, adjacent to the airport. No to that one as well.

Many theories abound as to the meaning of RDU, our airport code.

Many theories abound as to the meaning of RDU, our airport code.

So here’s our official answer, and, unfortunately, it’s not very dramatic. In the 1960’s the Federal Aviation Administration began assigning three-letter codes to commercial airports in the United States. For our airport, they picked RDU. That’s it. Whoever was assigned this task decided that RDU best fit Raleigh-Durham International Airport.  If there was a specific reason behind it, we really just don’t know.

The three-letter airport codes are created by using combinations of letters representing the airfield, city or region’s name.  Small, general aviation airports may have a combination of letters as well as numbers.

RDU falls right in line with the pattern for codes like SFO for San Francisco International Airport and GSP for Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport.  Other airports that serve a single city may take the first three letters of that city, such as DAL for Dallas Love Field or HOU for Hobby Airport in Houston.

Then there are those that are puzzling. ORD refers to Chicago-O’Hare Airport. This was selected because at the time of the designation that airport was known as Orchard Field. Same with MCO for Orlando, as the airport stands on the site of the former McCoy Air Force Base.

And while RDU is fine to us, people occasionally write or e-mail asking us to change our code to RDI or RDA. Though RDI seems to be open for the moment, the fine folks at Rockhampton Downs Airport in Australia, might have an issue with someone else trying to be RDA.

So there you have it. You now know what RDU doesn’t stand for. And, you’ve got some knowledge on airport codes that could be helpful at the next trivia night.

About Andrew Sawyer

Andrew Sawyer is the External Communication Specialist for the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority and is the main writer for RDU’s website, electronic communication and airport publications. He’s also the primary face behind RDU’s social media channels. Andrew also assists with many other things, from media relations to event planning. In fact, he has an advanced degree in "other duties as assigned."
This entry was posted in General and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to RDU: What The Code Doesn’t Stand For

  1. James says:

    Why, when referring to airports internationally, do we add a “k” to US airports; such as KRDU?

    • Great question, and one that we may delve into more in the future. The three-letter codes were assigned by the Federal Aviation Administration following a decision to move to a common-speaking terminology by IATA- International Air Transport Assocition.. There are a separate set of codes that are four characters regulated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). To make coding and understanding easier, the FAA chose to add a K to every U.S. three-letter IATA code to fit that standard. Why two codes? We’re not really sure. You as a passenger see the three letter code on bag tags, in booking trips, etc. The four letter code is used by pilots and air traffic controllers. Hope this helps.

  2. To be really geeky I’ll point out that the K isn’t exactly for U.S. airports. It’s for airports within the lower 48 states. Hawaiian and Alaskan airports get a P prefix like PHTO for Hilo International Airport. Likewise airports in the Caribbean get a T, Europe’s begin with E, etc.

    • Thank you. We felt that was a level too in-depth for this blog post, but maybe we’ll dedicate another blog post in the future to more on airport codes.

    • Jonathan says:

      Actually European Airports use a completely different IATA code from the ICAO code. London Heathrow is LHR and EGLL, London Gatwick is LGW and EGKK, Paris Charles DeGaulle is CDG and LFPG and Madrid is MAD and LEMD. Kind of Geeky.

      But, to make the comment relevant to Raleigh, RDU has a great service to London Heathrow!!!!

  3. K says:

    Perhaps something else of interest is those airports that are called by their FAA codes. I know RDU, LAX, and JFK are a few examples. Are their others? Very few people call it Raleigh-Durham or Los Angeles International but rather by the FAA code. Pretty interesting stuff in my opinion.

    • Actually, we’re thinking about a post relating to how RDU is now used to represent the region. This would tie in great. Thanks for the idea!

    • Bob Macdonald says:

      It IS interesting as when people ask I always refer to my home airport as RDU. I also tend to call out the cities I’m flying to by their FAA codes which often (like MCO for Orlando) don’t quite fit they way we might think they should. A few of mine: BNA – Nashville, TN; BDL (Bradley) – Hartford-Springfield; MHT – Manchester, NH; EWR – Newark, LIberty; SFO – San Francisco, and so on…Even smaller airports aren’t always intuitive – Wilmington, NC is ILM, for example. Intersting that some cities have older airports that have easier to remember designations: HOU for Houston- Hobby while the bigger airport is IAH: George Bush Intercontinental; DAL for Dallas Love Field while the bigger airport is DFW (Dallas-Fort Worth). Canadian airports I’ve flown to always start with “Y” (YVR = Vancouver, BC, YYZ – Toronto, ON, YYC – Calgary, AB, YHZ – Halifax, NS, YXS – Prince George, BC). Good stuff. Love RDU as my home!

      • You are correct! For the purposes of this blog post, we decided not to get into Canadian airports or how they determine codes when two major airports serve a city: IAH and HOU, for example. But you’re exactly right, most people (and airports) are starting to refer to FAA codes, especially in the social media world that we live in today. Thanks for the comment. We appreciate it!

  4. cheryl says:

    I seem to remember a newspaper article some years ago talking about a group or person pushing to change the name of the airport to Wilbur and Orville Wright and hoping to change the code to WOW. Do you remember this? Or know what happened to that campaign?

    If the airport were to want to change its code, would it even be allowed to?

  5. Kevin Powell says:

    I enjoyed your blog about the meaning behind the name RDU. I have one for you that I have heard for over 40 years. RDU stands for Raleigh Durham Unicible (not Municipal). However, I was told the Unicible part still referred to military and/or government, as in WWI, WWII, etc. Your explanation blows that theory to pieces! Thank you for clarifying that.

Please share your thoughts

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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 )

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s