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Airport names and political intrigue in the United States of America

Analysis

An extensive 2015 CAPA report examined the naming of airports after individuals (eponyms) across the world and suggested that more can be expected. Recent events in the US, notably the renaming of Las Vegas’ primary airport, suggest that politics is increasingly playing a role both in their naming and renaming.

Comparatively few of America’s airports so far are named after politicians and they are equally split between Democrat and Republican. Few of the country’s most influential early politicians are represented, and where they are it is usually at secondary airports. Likewise, only four of the last 10 presidents have their name appended to an airport.

But with the rise of identity politics the likelihood is that there will be more examples of the naming of an airport in support not only of an individual, but of a political doctrine.

This report looks at some of the candidates for this sort of recognition among some of the recent big beasts, and also those that aspire to be recognised in this way.

Summary

  • Follow-up report to one from 2015 looks at the influence of politics in the naming of US airports.
  • Politics is a category that remains behind the military, entrepreneurship and entertainment where airport naming in the US is concerned.
  • Those already so named are split 50:50 between Democrat and Republican politicians.
  • The recent renaming of Las Vegas’ main airport suggests 'woke politics' is gaining ground as a reason for renaming.
  • There is no Barack Obama or Donald Trump airport yet, and the prospects are slim.
  • Sometimes the airports are small and remote, even if the politicians weren’t.
  • The Mount Rushmore presidents are conspicuous by their aviation absence.
  • Only four of the last 10 presidents have airports named after them.
  • ‘Amtrak Joe’ is not likely to merit a large airport naming unless his record improves decisively. 

Las Vegas airport renamed on political grounds?

The recent (Dec-2021) renaming of the main airport in Las Vegas, Nevada, in the United States from McCarran to Harry Reid underlines just how ‘political’ the naming of transportation hubs, and especially airports, can be.

The message is in the eponym in many cases. US Senator Pat McCarran was a Democrat who represented Nevada from 1933 to 1954, while Harry Reid, also a Democrat, was a lawyer and politician who served as a senator from 1987 to 2017. The latter is still with us while the former isn’t.

While death can often be the arbiter in such matters, media reports suggest that historians have called McCarran “a noted proponent of aviation but also an advocate of xenophobic and anti-Semitic policies during his career”, leading several of Nevada's political leaders to have called for changing the name of the airport. So politics holds the trump card over death (if you’ll pardon the pun).

It may well turn out that the political zeitgeist – in which statues of famous Americans, and those of other nationalities, are torn down because of a perceived link to slavery (and even though in some cases they might have helped put an end to that practice) – determines how airports will thenceforth be named.

Louisville got the Ali touch, but more for Ali as a sportsman than as an activist

It could be argued that there was a political undercurrent behind the last such renaming in the US, in 2019, when Louisville International Airport in Kentucky became Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport.

Ali (or Cassius Clay as he then was) refused to serve in the army and specifically in Vietnam, and became a political agitator during his sporting days; even more so once those days were behind him.

On the other hand, it could be argued that he was simply a native of the Kentucky city who became ‘The Greatest’ (being named ‘Sports Personality of the Century’ by both Sports Illustrated and the BBC for his boxing triumphs).

Louisville International Airport, Kentucky, USA

Many airports globally have been named after political or religious figures

In 2015 a CAPA report was published which examined the naming of airports after individuals.

At that time there were 317 scheduled commercial airports around the world, out of a total of 4037, which were named after a person. Today there are 374 known ones, which indicates a growing propensity to perpetuate the names of individuals, including politicians, in airport infrastructure, sometimes irrespective of how reviled they may have been in life. The majority of these airports globally continue to be named after political or religious figures, or notable individuals from the fields of science, the arts and other disciplines.

There are some dangers in taking the political route and even the religious one. Although it is extremely unlikely that anyone would seek to name an airport after a tyrant (it is difficult to imagine a Hitler, Mao Tse-tung, Pol Pot or Putin airport – albeit Harare Airport in Zimbabwe did take the Mugabe name), applying any political eponym to an airport runs the risk of alienating as many people as it encourages to use the facility.

This is particularly true in the US, where political support among those who care at all is divided almost 50:50 between Republicans and Democrats, with hardly any other parties or individuals getting a look in. That remark was initially made in the 2015 report and is even truer today in a country seemingly interminably and irreversibly split into two vehemently opposed factions by politics.

No Barack Obama airport yet

The 2015 report raised the possibility of a Barack H Obama airport; indeed it ventured that as presidents typically retain a special place in the heart of most American citizens, irrespective of their political doctrine, there would almost certainly be one eventually, possibly in Chicago where his political power base is. That would probably mean renaming O’Hare airport, which is currently named after a World War 2 flying ace, as Midway Airport simply wouldn’t be ‘important enough.’

But that was then and this is now. Four years of the previous US administration has so partitioned the country that the prospect of naming an airport after either Obama or Trump could not even be considered at this stage.

Sometimes the airports are small and remote, even if the politicians weren’t

It isn’t always the case that a grand international hub is named after a president although it is in the instance of J F Kennedy in New York and Ronald Reagan National (a domestic hub, at least) in Washington.

In the case of Abraham Lincoln, arguably the most famous of the US’ historical presidents and the greatest, his everlasting aeronautical memorial can be found at one of the many Springfields (the most popular name for a town or city in the US); this one at Springfield, Illinois, where ‘Abe’ lived and practiced as a lawyer.

The Mount Rushmore presidents are conspicuous by their aviation absence

Actually, Lincoln has fared well in the airport naming stakes and certainly when compared to his peers who are chiselled out of the rock alongside him on Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. There are no Thomas Jefferson or Theodore Roosevelt airports (other than the one at Dickinson, North Dakota, which handled 46,000 passengers in 2019), and even the first ever president and ‘Founding Father’ George Washington is overlooked. The capital city and district may recall him but its airports are named for a B-movie Hollywood actor (Reagan National) and a Republican politician, John Foster Dulles, a strong supporter of NATO, whose highest office was Secretary of State.

The Mount Rushmore Memorial, South Dakota, USA

Only four of the last 10 presidents have airports named after them

And that is equally true of more recent presidents.

Looking back over the last 10, from the current incumbent to Richard Nixon, only four (Gerald Ford; Ronald Reagan; George H W Bush; and Bill Clinton) have so far had airports named after them.

Bush’s name (Bush senior) is allocated to the biggest of them, at Houston, which was the 15th busiest in the US in 2019 (George Bush, his son, the 43rd president, doesn’t get a look in, anywhere).

Ronald Reagan finally got his name attached to the National Airport in Washington as mentioned earlier.

Gerald Ford’s name is appended to the airport at Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he was raised. In 2019 it handled some 3.6 million passengers. (That’s probably about right for the only president or vice president never to be elected and one who had to pick up the pieces following the resignation of Richard Nixon.)

Bill Clinton is immortalised with Hillary at Little Rock

Bill Clinton’s claim to fame is really a dual one with his wife, Hillary (who attempted to be, but failed to get elected US president in 2016).

Jointly, they are enshrined in the Bill & Hillary Clinton National Airport in Little Rock, Arkansas, where they originally built their political power base.

In 2019 it handled 2.2 million passengers. (In local folklore the Reagan National airport in Washington is known as the Monica Lewinsky Washington National Airport).

If those presidents without airports could have one, where might they be?

Richard Nixon was from Yorba Linda, California, on the eastern outskirts of Los Angeles and where the Richard Nixon presidential Library and Museum is now situated. It is located in a triangle between three airports – Los Angeles International (LAX), Ontario and Orange County, which is named after one of Ronald Reagan’s movie industry peers, John Wayne.

The renaming of any of those airports is extremely unlikely while Nixon’s political reputation sticks, which it will probably always do.

Jimmy Carter probably merits a naming, but there is no obvious candidate apart from Atlanta

Jimmy Carter who, at 97, is the oldest surviving president, is from Plains, Georgia, which is a small village halfway between Atlanta and the Florida capital of Tallahassee. The nearest large city, Columbus, is actually the second most populous in the state of Georgia (220,000 residents) and its airport, which has no eponym, is small but offers commercial air service to three major hubs – Charlotte/Douglas; Dallas-Fort Worth and the biggest of them all – Atlanta.

Carter’s post-presidential activities, which include human rights, peace negotiations (he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize), election monitoring and writing prose and poetry, have been viewed more favourably than his presidency and generally very positively. For that reason alone it is entirely possible that a small Georgia airport like Columbus could be named for him after his death, but there is an argument that he merits a much bigger prize, perhaps even Atlanta’s airport, again the world’s busiest, which is named after two former mayors of the city.

‘Dubya’ Bush is forgotten, and probably will stay that way

George W ('Dubya') Bush is almost the ‘forgotten president’ now.

He was among the most popular and unpopular presidents in US history, having received the highest recorded approval ratings in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks, but one of the lowest such ratings during the 2007–2008 financial crisis. He is also remembered for the second Gulf War and the disastrously inept response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

In his favour, public and scholarly appreciation of his presidency has improved since he left office, and he is recalled affectionately in New York for his visit to ‘Ground Zero’ in Sep-2001 and his speech there at the 20th anniversary remembrance in 2021.

Originally from New Haven, Connecticut, Mr Bush is intrinsically linked today with Texas and his ranch at Crawford. Having bought accommodation in the Dallas suburbs, he has become accepted in the area, leaving open the remote possibility of an airport naming at Dallas, where there is none at the main gateway, Dallas-Fort Worth. The secondary, Love Field airport carries the name of a military officer who died in a plane crash in 1913, more than 100 years ago.

As mentioned earlier, Barack Obama’s power base was, and still is, centred on Chicago, although his birthplace was Honolulu and he continues to reside in Washington DC. While Mr Obama remains active in politics, notably by way of campaigning for President Joe Biden and Democratic candidates for Congress and the Senate, it is hard to see how he could be considered for an airport eponym.

Donald Trump is no longer welcomed by many on his home turf

The same applies to Donald Trump, and even more so. Others rise and fall in popularity while Trump generally remains constant. (There is even the possibility that he will stand for the Senate in the Nov-2022 mid-term elections.)

As the saying goes, though, a week is a long time in politics.

But while half the US population regards Mr Trump as utterly divisive, the prospect of an airport naming is very remote.

It would surely never happen in his original stomping ground of New York (he is from the borough of Queens, home to J F Kennedy and LaGuardia airports, the latter named for a former city Mayor) as his popularity there is very low. It might be possible if one or more of the city-region’s airports were privatised; that seems very unlikely. It has been considered in the past but rejected.

Potentially at Palm Beach airport (Florida) for naming rights.

Palm Beach Airport route map, Florida, USA

Current president is not likely to merit a large airport naming

The current president Mr Biden was born in Scranton, northeast Pennsylvania. The area does have an airport, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International, which (despite its name) has no domestic commercial services, let alone international ones. 

But perhaps a more appropriate one would be the New Castle Wilmington (Delaware) airport. That airport lies within 50km (35 miles) of Philadelphia Airport and is struggling to attract commercial service to what is the largest town in the ‘financial state’ of Delaware, where many companies register for tax purposes.

Realistically, Philadelphia International, by far the biggest airport in Pennsylvania, would be the best long term bet, but much will depend on the outcome of Mr Biden's tenure in the White House, which could hang on many factors including the results of the Nov-2022 mid-term elections. (Politicians usually don’t get their names appended to airports when they do not complete their terms.)

Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi would look to California first

It is worth considering what possible opportunities await the current crop of leading Democrat politicians and those that aspire to be. The number of airports named after Democrats and Republicans is split 50:50 (including Abraham Lincoln, who represented both the Republican Party and the National Union Party), so there are potential opportunities for those that covet them in both the parties.

(In fact, politicians are in a minority, as most US airports are named after aviators, military heroes, constructors and engineers, businesspeople, entertainers and celebrities).

Both Kamala Harris, the current vice president, and Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the House – the second and third in line to the presidency if the president has to step aside – are based in California and are associated with the San Francisco Bay area.

Ms Harris was born in Oakland, a city whose airport mainly caters to low cost airlines in the Bay Area. Ms Harris is noted for being the first female vice president and the highest-ranking female official in US history, as well as the first African-American and first Asian-American vice president. With her coming from a city with a 25% black and 16% Asian population, there is a better than even chance that she might eventually be considered as the eponym for the airport.

Ms Pelosi is connected to Baltimore, the city of her birth, and San Francisco, which is where she now has her residence. It is understood she will stand down as speaker of the House in 2023, and after that she might possibly be considered for a future naming of San Francisco International Airport.

The Baltimore-Washington airport is currently named for Supreme Court Judge and Civil Rights activist Thurgood Marshall. And Los Angeles International Airport won’t be having its name changed any time soon.

AOC’s Puerto Rican roots would not qualify her for consideration at the US’ only successfully privatised airport

Perhaps the most intriguing political candidate for a future airport eponym is the young, outspoken and firebrand New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – or AOC as she is popularly known.

As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and ‘The Squad’ of Progressive Democrats, she represents New York districts such as The Bronx and North Queens, which is home to LaGuardia Airport, named for Fiorello La Guardia. (La Guardia was a Republican with some Democratic sympathies who also represented New York and who was regarded as one of its greatest ever mayors. Irrespective of what AOC achieves in her future political career, she is unlikely to oust La Guardia from his airport.)

There will be supporters of AOC who might consider a naming rights scenario for her at LaGuardia airport but she is no great supporter of the facility, having voted against the Air Train project there, one that was subsequently scrapped, and having voted against the effect on her ‘neighbourhood’. 

AOC has her roots in Puerto Rico. Her father was born in New York’s Bronx borough to a Puerto Rican family and her mother was actually born in Puerto Rico. That links her to the San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, which serves Puerto Rico's capital and largest city. Mr Marín was the first elected governor of Puerto Rico, regarded as the ‘Architect of the Puerto Rico Commonwealth’ and a member of the Popular Democratic Party.

However successful AOC becomes in her career, the prospect of her or anyone else usurping Ms Marin’s name is negligible. Quite apart from that, as a socialist she eschews the concept of the privatisation of airports, as does her party, while the Luis Muñoz Marín airport is notable for being the only success of the privatisation by lease process in the US, which began as long ago as 1996. 

The link to the original 2015 report is here: What’s in an eponym? Celebrity airports - could there be a commercial benefit in naming? 

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