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Aviation: What's in a name?

Airports have been named in honour of politicians, musicians, explorers, aviators and even footballers. But Louisville Standiford Field (SDF) is now taking the name of one of the city's most famous former residents, a boxer. The decision came when the board approved a change to Louisville Muhammad Ali International on January 16, 2019.

Ali, once known as "the greatest", was born named Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky on January 17, 1942. He became an amateur boxer aged 12 and after taking a gold medal in 1960 Olympics he won the world heavyweight title four years later. He was one of the most successful boxers of the 20th century and the only one to be champion of the heavyweight division three times. He passed away on June 3, 2016, by when he was one of the most recognised celebrities in the sport. He also played a roll in the American civil rights movement and converted to Islam. Ali courted controversy by dodging the draft and was stripped of his boxing licence for more than three years. He also had a well-known saying... Presumably aircraft flying into Louisville will now "float like a butterfly" - but will they also "sting like a bee"?

Louisville Sandiford Field will henceforth be known as Louisville Muhammad Ali International. (redlegsfan21)

Louisville is currently served by Allegiant Air, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Frontier Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines. Its passenger traffic has remained fairly static over the last decade, with annual totals ranging between 3.2m and 3.8m. However, freight it where SDF really excels; it is home to the United Parcel Service (UPS) 'Worldport', the third busiest cargo gateway in the USA and seventh busiest in the world.

Celebrity names

Ironically Ali was known to be scared of flying, but changing airport names to honour a local celebrity has become quite a fashion of late. In an era when internet searches direct much of our thinking, it's not a bad thing if a supplementary name helps establish a link between a region and the airport that serves it, and helps build a stronger local identity. When the news that SDF was jumping on the celebrity bandwagon arose, The Aviation Oracle started thinking about other famous names adopted by facilities across the globe.

Liverpool Airport is named in honour of John Lennon - there is a replica yellow submarine outside the terminal. (Rept0n1x)

Perhaps the best known examples in the United Kingdom are Liverpool John Lennon - commemorating the famous member of the Beetles - and Befast City George Best, named after the internationally renowned footballer who was arguably the most famous player of the '60s. If literature is more your thing, Ian Flemming International in Jamaica pays homage to the author of the James Bond books who lived on the island for a while.

Explorers are also popular as Genoa has Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus) while Italy has Venice Marco Polo and Nepal has Lukla Hilary-Tenzing (Alpine pioneers Sir Edmund Hillary Hillary and sherpa Tenzing Norgay). Meanwhile Little Rock in Arkansas has named its airport Bill and Hillary Clinton National, and Genghis Khan is commemorated at Ulan Bator International in Mongolia.

Maybe famous aviators are more appropriate? If so Chicago O'Hare (named in honour of World War Two pilot Edward Henry 'Butch' O'Hare), the Wright Brothers (the airport in Dayton, Ohio), Charles Kingsford Smith (Sydney, Australia) and Charles Lindbergh (San Diego) fit the bill well. And aside from the aforementioned Clintons, politicians get in on many acts including John F Kennedy (New York) and Houston (George Bush, and Texas state governor William Hobby).

Belfast City Airport was renamed as a tribute to soccer star George Best. (Sue Adair)

Other arts-related names include jazz musician Loius Armstrong in New Orleans and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Saltzburg - as well as commedian Bob Hope in Burbank and John Wayne in Santa Ana, California. There's even another Californian airport named after Snoopy and Peanuts cartoonist Charles M Shultz. Another fictional character to gain recognition is Robin Hood (Doncaster / Sheffield) in Yorkshire, despite legend having it that he spent most of his time in Nottinghamshire). And interestingly, Omaha's airport was named Eppley Field after a local hotelier who's estate helped fund a runway extension. Even esoteric names such as Kai Tak (Hong Kong) suddenly make sense when it becomes apparent that it was derived from the surnames of two local businessmen.

There seems to have been a recent upswing in naming airports after well-known figures in public life. However, including the geographical region in which airfields are located is still more popular - e.g. Copenhagen Kastrup, Frankfurt Main, Nice Côte d'Azur (coast of azure blue), La Paz El Alto (high one).

Politicians lead the way

Little Rock National Airport is named for Bill and Hillary Clinton. (US Geological Survey)

The list below is far from exhaustive but while compiling it, it occurred to The Aviation Oracle that the best opportunities for an individual to gain recognition in the airport world fall to well-known politicians. It would be nice to believe that they all made a significant impact on their local aviation scene, but more likely that most of them just had administrative influence.

With so many airports being named after national and regional politicians though (including US Presidents), it does beg the question: will there ever be a Donald J Trump International Airport? Maybe one day former New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia's posthumous legacy will be threatened. Then again, some debates are perhaps best left well alone.

Selected airport names

  • Anchorage - Ted Stevens (politician)

  • Atlanta - William Hartsfield and Maynard Jackson (politicians)

  • Belfast City, Northern Ireland - George Best (footballer)

  • Boscobel, Jamaica - Ian Flemming (author)

  • Burbank, USA - Bob Hope (commedian)

  • Chicago, USA - Edward Hendy 'Butch' O'Hare (World War Two aviator)

  • Dayton, Ohio, USA - Wright brothers (aviators)

  • Doncaster / Sheffield, England - Robin Hood (legendary character)

  • Genoa, Italy - Christopher Columbus (explorer)

  • Hong Kong - Ho Kai and Au Tak (businessmen)

  • Houston, USA - George Bush (politician)

  • Houston, USA - William P Hobby (politician)

  • Istanbul, Turkey - Sabiha Gökçen (World War One aviator)

  • Istanbul, Turkey - Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (army officer, politician)

  • Johannesburg - Jan Smutts (philosopher / politician), Oliver Tambo (politician)

  • Las Vegas, USA - Pat McCarran (politician)

  • Lima, Peru - Jorge Antonio Chávez Dartnell (aviator)

  • Lisbon, Portugal - Humberto Delgado (aviator / politician)

  • Little Rock, USA - Bill and Hillary Clinton (politicians)

  • Liverpool, England - John Lennon (singer / songwriter)

  • Louisville, USA - Mohammad Ali (boxer)

  • Lukla, Nepal - Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay (mountaineers)

  • Madeira, Portugal - Cristiana Ronaldo (footballer)

  • Madrid, Spain - Adolfo Suarez (politician)

  • Milwaukee - Willaim 'Billy' Mitchell (World War One aviator)

  • New Orleans - Louis Armstrong (singer, musician)

  • New York, USA - Fiorello LaGuardia (politician)

  • New York, USA - John F Kennedy (politician)

  • Omaha, USA - Eugene Eppley (hotelier)

  • Paris, France - Charles de Gaulle (politician)

  • Saltzburg, Austria - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (composer)

  • San Diego, USA - Charles Lindbergh (pioneer aviator)

  • Santa Ana, USA - John Wayne (actor)

  • Sonoma County, California, USA - Charles M Shultz (cartoonist)

  • St Louis - Albert Lambert (golfer)

  • Sydney - Charles Edward Kingsford Smith (aviator)

  • Tirana, Albania - Mother Teresa (missionary / nun)

  • Ulan Bator, Mongolia - Genghis Khan (explorer)

  • Washington, USA - John Foster Dulles (politician)

  • Washington, USA - Ronald Reagan (actor / politician)

  • Venice, Italy - Marco Polo (explorer)

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