What’s in an eponym? Celebrity airports - could there be a commercial benefit in naming?


According to a list in the online encyclopaedia Wikipedia, there are 317 scheduled commercial airports around the world (out of a total of 4037 according to OAG/ACI [2013]) which are named after a person.

Most often that individual is (by far) a politician, or a religious leader. There is a small but growing number that are named, or more likely have been renamed, after a 'celebrity,' such as a musician, actor, artist or sportsperson for example and occasionally an industrialist.

One might assume that there is a commercial motive behind such a decision, at least partially. But there is little in the way of research so far into the quantifiable economic benefit of an airport adopting a celebrity eponym.

The vast majority of these airports are named after political or religious figures, or notable individuals from the fields of science and other disciplines. There are some dangers in taking the political route and even the religious one. While it is extremely unlikely that anyone would seek to name an airport after a tyrant, 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 amongst 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.

Passengers having distaste for a party may not be able to avoid using the named airport but they can minimise their patronage and circumvent the facilities in it.

President Obama will inevitably have an airport named after him - but where?

On the other hand such extreme reactions are rarely to be found where US airports are named after Presidents, who retain a special place in the heart of most American citizens, irrespective of their political doctrine. So there will almost certainly be a Barack H Obama airport one day when his two terms are complete, possibly in Chicago where his political power base is.

That would mean renaming O'Hare airport, which is currently named after a World War 2 flying ace, as Midway simply wouldn't be 'important enough,' and the proposed South Chicago Suburban airport has been earmarked for cargo, which might not be appropriate. Or it could be in Hawaii, where he was born, or Kenya, where his father came from, or even Ireland, as the Irish have long celebrated the rise to power of 'Barry O'Bama.' (This was written on St Patrick's Day and Dublin Airport does not carry anyone's name right now).

Obama would be the latest edition to a long list of political airport eponyms that already includes the 41st President George H W Bush (Houston) - not his son George W 'Dubya' Bush who has no lasting airport memorial for now at least -; Gerald R Ford (the not so grand Grand Rapids Airport, Michigan); Ronald Reagan (Reagan National Airport, Washington DC); and probably the best known of them all, John F Kennedy (New York). 'JFK' actually has two. The J F Kennedy Memorial Airport in Ashland, Wisconsin is also named for the assassinated 35th President.

The Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport, named after probably the most famous of the US' historical Presidents and arguably the greatest, can be found at one of the many Springfields (the most popular name for a town or city in the US and where 'The Simpsons' live), this one at Springfield, Illinois, where 'Abe' lived. In the US at least it is not only large city or hub airports that are named in honour of senior politicians.

There are many politicians immortalised in runway tarmac in the US but Presidential name selections are relatively few and that broadly is the case in most other countries. Canada's main claim to fame is Montreal's Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport, one that is perhaps not as influential as was the former French-Canadian Prime Minister, who began his political life as a Parliamentary Secretary to Lester B Pearson (who, of course, is immortalised at Toronto's main airport).

In 2014 MPETIA carried only 14.8 million passengers, a small figure for Canada's second city and a mere 38% of the total at Toronto Pearson, despite 5.3% annual growth. There is increasing concern amongst the city's politicians over this poor performance, which is heavily influenced by lower taxes at airports in nearby New York State in the US. Meanwhile no passengers at all now use Montreal's Mirabel Airport, the 1975 white elephant that was once the world's largest by size, and which was named after the suburb of that name.

A man and woman watch from the unloved Mirabel Airport's observation deck as the last flight taxis in and unloads its passengers.

The UK is a country that has usually avoided political name attachments. Most of the main airports in London (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted etc) and the regions (Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow, Edinburgh etc) carry no political appendage. In fact, with little imagination being employed, airports in Britain are or were typically named after the suburb or locality in which they are found (Manchester Ringway, Liverpool Speke, Birmingham Elmdon, Glasgow Abbotsinch, Edinburgh Turnhouse and so on). The main bone of contention is whether or not to describe them as 'International' Airport, whether they actually are or not.

This state of affairs is representative of a wider trend in the UK which can best be demonstrated in the example of the legendary 1970s new town of Milton Keynes, about 50 miles (80 km) north of London and now Britain's fastest growing city and with more finance houses than Zurich. It was named after the villages of Milton and Keynes over which it was built, not the economists Milton Friedman and John Maynard Keynes as is often assumed.

Several airports could have a claim on Sir Winston Churchill

There are the beginnings of an interesting debate in the UK though, over the future naming of Heathrow Airport. In the year of the 50th anniversary of the death of celebrated wartime leader Sir Winston Churchill (who is generally regarded as Britain's greatest ever citizen), a councillor in Maidenhead, close to Heathrow Airport, has begun a campaign to rename London Heathrow Airport after Churchill. Heathrow Airport has not responded to the suggestion though it is not likely to until the final results of the Airports Commissions on UK runway capacity are delivered early in Jun-2015.

This actually raises an interesting question as to which airport might claim to 'own' a politician's name where several are in the frame. There are two or three others that might well lodge a claim in Churchill's case, including Manchester, where Churchill entered politics - quite by chance - and subsequently won his first Parliamentary seat (Oldham 1900-1906) and then went on later to represent Manchester North West. Later still he represented two separate constituencies in Essex (closest airports London Stansted and London Southend) and Dundee in Scotland.

Yet, there seems to be no interest shown by Manchester Airports Group, which owns both Manchester and Stansted airports, even in merely examining the case for renaming either airport after a statesman who is almost universally revered (even if such reverence is open to question).

There are several exceptions to this general rule in the UK, where airports have been overtly renamed after 'celebrities,' the best known being Liverpool and Belfast City airports, and where attachment to a highly regarded historical figure is - again - under consideration, this time at Birmingham. These exceptions will be examined later.

Briefly, other notable 'politicians' (the word is sometimes used loosely here) who have found themselves attached to airports, whether they like it or not (and most are well beyond caring) include:

Napoleon Bonaparte (Ajaccio, Corsica, France);

Alexander the Great (who is immortalised at two airports, in Greece and Macedonia);

David Ben Gurion (Tel Aviv, Israel);

Yasser Arafat (Rafah, Gaza Strip);

Rafic Hariri (Assassinated former Prime Minister of Lebanon: Beirut):

Charles de Gaulle (Paris, France);

Gengis Kahn (Ulan Bator, Mongolia);

Lech Walesa (Gdansk, Poland);

Indira Gandhi (Delhi, India. There are no airports named after Mahatama Gandhi but plenty of other transport facilities in India are);

Benazir Bhutto (Assassinated former Prime Minister of Pakistan: Rawalpindi);

Jomo Kenyatta (Nairobi, Kenya);

Konrad Adenaur (first post-war German Chancellor, Cologne, Germany);

Oliver Tambo (ANC leader: Johannesburg, South Africa);

Adolpho Suarez (Spain's first democratically elected prime minister after Franco, Madrid - but only from 2014);

Simon Bolivar (Leader of five countries to independence from Spain: twice, at Columbian and Venezuelan airports);

Imam Khomeini (Tehran, Iran);

Vaclav Havel (Prague, Czech Republic).

Additionally, Lee Kuan Yew (Singapore) - a proposal in Apr-2015 to rename Singapore's Changi Airport that arose from a public petition and will now be presented to the Government for consideration.

One potential issue that can arise when an airport is named for political reasons is that the politician falls out of favour. That can prompt awkward deliberations as to whether the airport should be renamed.

Baghdad International Airport was previously Saddam International Airport, ironically now a name that suggests, if nothing else, greater national unity than exists at present. Addis Ababa's Bole International Airport once carried the name of Emperor Haile Selassie, revered by Rastafarians as the returning messiah, but is now recognised by the bland name of a suburb.

South African airports eradicate all apartheid era traces, but no place yet for Mandela

The principal three South African airports dropped their apartheid era names. Johannesburg's Jan Smuts became O (Oliver) R Tambo; Cape Town's D F Malan simply reverted to Cape Town and gained 'International;' while Durban's Louis Botha also became Durban International before closing down altogether in 2010 to be turned into a container storage yard and replaced by the green field King Shaka International Airport, named for a 19th century Zulu leader.

Away from the 'golden triangle' of the Republic's three main commercial cities, the name of another apartheid era leader, B J Vorster, who was in power at the time of Nelson Mandela's imprisonment, was quietly removed from what is now plain Kimberley Airport, at the centre of South Africa's diamond mining region.

Strangely, perhaps, there is no Nelson Mandela airport yet in South Africa, though there surely will be one day. But there is a Nelson Mandela Airport - at Praia on the island of Santiago, the capital of Cape Verde; a country that prospered from South African Airways flights that landed there to refuel en route Europe and the Americas during the period when they were not permitted to overfly a raft of African states. The naming was not without controversy.

There are few other countries where the march of history is better demonstrated than in South Africa's renaming of its airports but Bolivia (named after the hitherto-mentioned Simon Bolivar) has a shot at it. No friend to the US during the Eva Morales presidency since 2005, Bolivia renamed El Alto, the world's highest international airport, from its previous moniker, J F Kennedy (again) but in its defence that was before Morales took office and the name was rarely used in public anyway. Had the Morales government chosen to do it the already tense stand-off between the two countries might have been further heightened.

Simon Bolivar crops up again in Ecuador where another airport named after him at Guayaquil was renamed Jose Joaquin de Olmedo International in honour of a former President, Mayor of Guayaquil and a renowned poet. At least on this occasion there was no obvious political motive. It was merely felt that there were too many Simon Bolivar airports.

Politics most definitely played a part in the Philippines though, where former First Lady Imelda Marcos' (of the shoes) name was removed from what is now plain Mati Airport and in Taiwan, where Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (he of the 'White Terror') suffered a similar fate, being erased from the nameplate of what is now Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.

Royalty ranks higher than religion in airport naming

Aside from politics, the names of religious leaders and of royalty can be found at airports, the latter with much greater frequency. Religious ones include the same Pope (John Paul II) at both of the Krakow, Poland and Ponta Delgada (in the Portuguese Azores) airports. St Paul the Apostle Airport can be found at Ohrid in Macedonia.

There are no other Popes or Apostles that we know of but the beatified Mother Teresa of Calcutta is recognised at Tirana Airport in Albania. While she was of Macedonia origin, her parents were Albanian.

The names of Kings and Queens are attached to five airports, three of them in Saudi Arabia (Abdulaziz/Jeddah, Fahd/Dammam and Khalid/Riyadh), together with the aforementioned King Shaka at Durban, South Africa and (King) Tribhuvan airport in Nepal. There are two Queens (Alia at Amman, Jordan and Beatrix at Oranjestad, Aruba and one Princess (Juliana, at Sint Maarten in the Netherlands Antilles).

Sultans are far more numerous, 11 in total, and all in Malaysia (six) or Indonesia (five). (A number of Indonesian airports are also named after 'national heroes').

Renowned aviators do make the list but not as often as might be expected. Lyon's (France) main airport is named after Antoine de Saint-Exupéry who was an all round polymath: an aristocrat, writer and poet as well as a pioneer of flight. Istanbul's fast growing second airport carries the name of Sabiha Gökçen, an adopted daughter of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish state, and the first Turkish female combat pilot. The Wright Brothers are recognised at Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport in Dayton, Ohio, USA but it is only a reliever/general aviation facility.

The final 'category' so to speak is the most intriguing one and might be referred to as the weird and wacky. They are, though, few and far between. Airports are a serious business. They include another flying ace, Billy Bishop, a Canadian First World War pilot, if only because he turns up twice; once at the Toronto City Airport that has recently changed hands in a sale-and-leaseback deal (an unusual arrangement in the airports business) and secondly at Owen Sound/Billy Bishop Airport, also in the province of Ontario. There are limited commercial flights at the latter but the potential for confusion is evident.

Greece is strong on names of characters from ancient history. The Greek physician Hippocrates is immortalised at the Kos International Airport, the island on which he was born, while the ancient Greek boxer Diagoras of Rhodes is celebrated at the airport of that name on the island of Rhodes. In the UK it still perplexes some people as to why the owners of Doncaster-Sheffield Airport, which opened in 2005, gave it the title 'Robin Hood' after the heroic outlaw of popular English folklore.

He is more typically associated with Sherwood Forest, some distance from the airport and the naming occasioned a petition against it. One airport is even named after a piece of music - Linz Blue Danube Airport in Austria is named after Johann Strauss' Blue Danube Waltz of 1866. Bizarrely, Sétif International Airport 08 May 1945 was named after a massacre.

There have been few academic studies to date

The naming of an airport is evidently taken seriously even if the result is sometimes a little difficult to understand. Surprisingly, there has been little in the way of academic research into the subject but a doctoral thesis was prepared in 2011 by a student, Uttam Kumar Regmi, who is also an aviation lecturer in Nepal specialising in the marketing and economics of airports. The following sections are based on interpretations of the content and data of that thesis. Comments in brackets (parentheses)/italics indicate an observation by the CAPA author on the student's remarks.

The study investigated the use of brand names and slogans at 1,562 airports worldwide using content analysis of airport websites. The broad conclusions are:

  • Over 75% of airports worldwide are named after a single place;
  • 20% of world airports are not named after a place, and this is particularly common for airports in Latin America and the Caribbean where almost half of airports in that region are not named after a place. Instead, they tend to be named after a famous person, especially a political leader and/or revolutionary;
  • Almost half of airports worldwide name their airport after the scope of services available, and this is always in addition to, as opposed to in place of, an existing name.

Significant differences exist between world regions. Naming an airport after natural or man-made

attractions is most common in Europe; after a political leader and/or revolutionary is most common in Latin America/the Caribbean; and after royalty is most common in the Middle East (as above).

Only 10% (also reported in the study to be 13%) of all airports use a slogan and this is mainly a North American phenomenon. A more detailed analysis of airports in Europe finds that one-quarter of airports have two or more place names; one is typically the name of the place in which the airport is located, while the other tends to be the name of the nearest main city or town. (Often such an outcome will be driven by the demands of a low cost airline that wishes to emphasise the proximity of an airport to a major city or conurbation, even if it is not proximate at all, as in the case for example of Frankfurt Hahn, Stockholm Skavsta and Paris Beauvais airports. This trend may begin to reduce as the main European LCCs focus their growth more on primary airports).

Including a reference to the scope of services available at the airport is significantly more common at larger versus smaller airports in Europe. The use of a slogan is significantly more common at airports in Europe that are owned or operated by private interests compared to those that are publicly owned and operated.

So the naming of airports worldwide is widespread while the employment of slogans is limited. In Europe in particular the use of airport names and slogans varies according to the size of the airport and style of corporate governance.

Airports are typically not strong at marketing a brand

Historically, the study says, airports have been behind their airline counterparts in terms of marketing, failing to demonstrate professionalism and lacking a proactive or dynamic approach. However, airport marketing has developed rapidly in this sense during the last few decades, many of them establishing marketing departments during the 1990s, led by the UK.

Citing brand theory, the study says the most fundamental element of brand awareness is the brand name. It must be distinctive, memorable, easy to pronounce and meaningful (whether in real or emotional terms). An extension of the brand name is to have a slogan which is a memorable phrase that says something about who the company is and what it does.

Using location as the defining reason for naming an airport has its dangers. The study mentions an example of one area that co-operated to find an acceptable umbrella name - Tri-Cities, which covers parts of Tennessee, Southwest Virginia and North Carolina. It also refers to what was East Midlands Airport in the UK, to which Nottingham was added as the neighbouring 'main city' in 2003.

But the other two principal cities of the area - Leicester and Derby - are closer to the airport and were added following protests in 2006, resulting in the ridiculously cumbersome "East Midlands Airport - Nottingham Leicester Derby," which is hardly ever used. Rather, it is still just plain 'East Midlands' to most people.

Some reference is made to 'famous persons,' some of which are mentioned in the prior text. But little is reported about 'celebrity' naming, the main focus of this short report, despite the fact that naming in recognition of the famous in general made up a high proportion of airport names in all regions at the time the academic study was undertaken, varying from a low of 10.4% of all names in Europe to 42.2% in Latin America and the Caribbean (an average of 19.3% across all regions). Indeed the word 'celebrity' does not appear in the report even though it could be argued that celebrity is a significant sub-category of 'famous'.

(End of reference to academic study).

Everyone's a celebrity, sporting and singing

In 2015 the rule of thumb is that the most famous - apart from some members of Royalty and very serious politicians - are 'celebrities,' and most frequently those in the sports, acting and musical performance fields. As long ago as 1966 John Lennon, then of The Beatles, declared that he was 'bigger than' (interpreted by the media as 'more popular than') Jesus. The attachment of the name of such persons to an airport is more likely to generate newspaper column inches and public intrigue than any other category.

CAPA undertook its own short study of the phenomenon of naming an airport after a celebrity (see later). The results seem to indicate that not a great deal of thought is attached to the power of a celebrity name to attract passenger business or investment. This is also rather surprising. Airport naming rights (to third parties) has increased in value as a non-aeronautical revenue generating tool during the past decade, especially so in the case of 'low cost' airports and terminals, which typically attract more leisure passengers that might be influenced by a particular name. This is the case in the US as well as Europe and Asia, where private airports developed outside the FAA's remit can offer certain facilities to airlines that those within that framework cannot, and can develop unconventional revenue streams, such as offering naming rights and other sponsorship opportunities.

The best example (in fact the only one to date - setting up such a private airport in the US is no easy task) is Branson Airport, Missouri, which apart from being the only privately owned, privately operated commercial service airport in the US (it opened in May-2009) is a nationally known centre for live music performances, on a par with Nashville and Austin.

And yet there has been no formal brand naming of Branson Airport so far, nor does it even carry a slogan. (http://flybranson.com/).

Liverpool and its airport continue to play the Beatles card to attract tourists

Earlier in this report reference was made to the United Kingdom in respect of celebrity-named airports. Liverpool's John Lennon International Airport is possibly the best examples that can be found, anywhere, of one that is named after a famous person who is not royalty or a politician (though Lennon could and probably would have become a politician had he lived).

It was renamed from Speke Airport (a city suburb) in 2001, 21 years after Lennon's death and was the first in the UK to be named after an individual. A bronze statue of Lennon in the check-in hall was reputedly inspired by a similar one to actor John Wayne at the eponymously named airport in Santa Ana, California. A spin-off from the re-naming was the adoption of a slogan, "Above Us Only Sky," from Lennon's song Imagine. The Lennon theme was further enhanced by the installation of an art work, a yellow submarine, in 2005. Yellow Submarine was the title of a 1966 Beatles song and, later, a film.

A large part of Liverpool's tourism appeal (which is considerable, attracting visitors from across the globe) continues to be driven by The Beatles even today. It would be reasonable to assume that at the very least the naming of the airport after probably the group's best known member would (a) drive more tourist visits through association and (b) direct them through Liverpool's airport where possible rather than through nearby Manchester Airport or a London airport, 200 miles (320 km) away. While other surviving members of the band, Ringo and Paul, might feel left out, Liverpool Beatles Airport is probably not the ideal brand.

Yet the airport's management admits that no formal analysis has been undertaken into the financial impact of the renaming. It does believe there have been real benefits by way of raising the airport's profile locally, nationally and internationally (the latter for example through media coverage from across the world when Lennon's wife Yoko Ono travelled to Liverpool in order to announce the name change). Moreover, the name change prompted recognition of a brand for airlines to consider or reconsider Liverpool routes.

But this is essentially a 'gut feeling' rather than one backed up by questionnaires and hard statistics.

As it happens, the city council has just (2015) commissioned a study into the impact of the Beatles brand on Liverpool's economy. There are concerns in some quarters about too great a focus persisting on a group that last worked together in 1970. It is not clear whether or not the influence of the airport rebrand is included in it.

Slogans can be both a benefit and a drawback

Liverpool's slogan, Above Us Only Sky, is representative of a dilemma that faces all airports when they adopt one, whether or not it is related to a celebrity name. The problem is that a slogan can be equally as unwelcome to some people as it can be attractive to others, also that it is open to ridicule. In Liverpool's case, on more than one occasion the slogan has been the butt of a joke in relation to the performance of Liverpool FC, one of the city's two Premier League soccer clubs, and one with a proud history.

In a recent example, in 2012, when Liverpool FC was performing poorly and close to the bottom of the league table, someone added "Below Us Only QPR and Reading" in reference to the two teams lower than Liverpool in the table.

And yet there was a positive spin arising from this disgruntled fan's scribble as the news spread quickly through social media, was picked up by the Press and Tele-visual media and rapidly spread virally across the world.

Whereas Liverpool has generally benefitted from the combination of renaming and slogan that is not the case at Glasgow's secondary level Prestwick Airport, which does not have any sort of brand name, but which adopted, in 2005 and under a previous owner following a refurbishment, a Glaswegian colloquialism, 'Pure Dead Brilliant,' as its slogan,

The catchphrase was found by many people to be unattractive for two reasons. Firstly, the colloquialism could not be understood outside of Glasgow and therefore could easily be misinterpreted. (It simply means 'Really Great'). Secondly it contained the word dead, which is a gaff as great as that of organising a political meeting in the run up to an election where the Party Leader leaves the venue (and is photographed doing so) through a door marked 'exit.'

A gaffe as great as that of a 'pure dead brilliant' airport.

Furthermore, the airport compounded the error by redecorating the terminal bar with a logo depicting a man in a kilt (Scottish national dress), unconscious with an empty bottle of whiskey. That was removed a matter of weeks after installation but 'pure dead brilliant' was not removed from the main terminal building until Jan-2014, by which time the airport was in the ownership of the Scottish government having slumped to just over one million passengers per annum from a high of 2.4 million successively during the years 2005-2008. It no longer appears on the website, either. http://www.glasgowprestwick.com/

To revert briefly to the 2011 academic study, only 13% per cent of world airports use a slogan. However, significant differences exist between world regions. The use of slogans is very much a North American phenomenon, with over one quarter of airports in that region using them. Approximately one in ten airports in Europe and Asia-Pacific use slogans; however, their use is scarce in the remaining world regions. Almost all airports worldwide use logos and, while significant differences exist between world regions, the differences are fairly small and the proportion of airports using a logo is high in all world regions.

City has become Belfast's 'Best' airport

After Liverpool, the best known airport celebrity rename in the UK is George Best Belfast City Airport in Northern Ireland, which also carries a slogan, "Belfast's Favourite Airport". At the time the airport was renamed in 2006 it was struggling to establish itself in competition with Belfast International (previously Aldergrove) airport. Since then it could be argued that it has done so.

Belfast is a relatively small city (the UK's 17th largest) of around 500,000 people including its urban hinterland, in a province of 1.8 million. There is little justification for two airports but Belfast International is 13 miles (21 km) from downtown whereas City is in the downtown area, at the site of the Shorts Brothers/Bombardier aircraft manufacturing plant and only three miles (5 km) from the city centre; about half the distance London City Airport is from the City of London. Both airports are in private ownership.

International is now owned by ADC-HAS (Houston, USA), the US's premier foreign airport investor, while City has changed hands between Ferrovial, ABN Amro, and the present owner, Eiser Infrastructure, a closed fund that was born out of ABN Amro after the original firm of that name was taken over by a consortium of Royal Bank of Scotland, Banco Santander and Fortis Bank.

During the last few years, City has narrowed the gap on International, to within 800,000 passengers by the end of 2013. It was able to acquire the prestige British Airways London Heathrow service and establish a base for Flybe. Whether or not this can be attributed to George Best is open to question. Proximity to the city centre carries more weight.

Best was an exceptionally talented soccer player, regarded as being in the top 10 of all time and described by Pele as the best (without the intention of a pun). Leaving behind a poor childhood in Belfast he played for Manchester United for 10 years, earning many awards and accolades, until retiring from the top level of the sport at the young age of 27. He would be considered easily to be sufficiently iconic for an airport except that he had an alcohol drink problem that contributed to the liver failure that ultimately killed him in 2005; Belfast City being renamed in his honour very soon thereafter on what would have been his 60th birthday. The medical baggage that Best carried, especially a controversial liver transplant in 2002, made some people uneasy about honouring him in any way.

As is the case of Liverpool, no formal research has been done on the economic benefit of the naming. It can only be ventured that the name has had no discernible ill-effect. The airport is doing quite well and while the name adoption did create some controversy at the time it seems now to have long evaporated.

To be or not to be? Birmingham Airport benefits from the Shakespeare connection but does not adopt his name

The final example from the UK is of an airport that has changed its name within recent memory, but which has not - yet - adopted a famous name from Britain's literary heritage, preferring to benefit from a looser association. Birmingham Airport is in the West Midlands of England, and the UK's seventh largest by passenger numbers. It is at the heart of an urban conurbation of 2.6 million and many more within a 50-mile radius. It should be higher up the table but it is adversely affected by being sandwiched between London Heathrow airport (easily accessible by motorway), the low cost mecca, London Stansted Airport and, to a lesser degree, Manchester Airport to the north; again easily accessible by motorway or other trunk highway.

Birmingham has recently - strangely perhaps - dropped the 'International' from its name on the basis that airports often describe themselves as being 'international' when they are not. But Birmingham very much is an international airport, which smacks of cutting off your nose to spite your face. Moreover, it retained its slogan/strap line 'Hello World.' It could be argued the two decisions do not quite add up.

A more interesting prospect for Birmingham is that it might add to its name (thereby replacing International) the renowned playwright William Shakespeare, who was born and lived in nearby Stratford-Upon-Avon in the 16th and 17th centuries. Stratford is also home to the Royal Shakespeare Company of actors. Such a prospect regularly arises and has been mooted several times over the years.

The management is certainly interested in the airport having a stronger association with Shakespeare as part of its brand development exercise, and to raise the profile of the airport, particularly in the Chinese market. Birmingham was the first UK airport outside of London to receive direct flights from China, in 2014, a short charter series from Beijing operated by China Southern. An extended Beijing charter programme will operate in 2015, this time the carrier will be Hainan Airlines and almost 4000 Chinese tourists are expected to take advantage of it via package tours, contributing GBP20 million to the local economy.

The current interest relates to the airport's development of a new positioning in China that is very simple and resonates with Chinese people using the phrase 'Birmingham Airport, Shakespeare's Airport'. So Birmingham Airport is not changing its name but using this as an additional way to position the airport as an alternative gateway to the UK in the minds of Chinese people and celebrate the wide appeal that Shakespeare has.

The airport has not looked formally into the question of economic benefit related to an airport's name but the data above indicates clearly that the mere connection between it and Shakespeare has contributed to an identifiable economic impact already.

Any connection with Shakespeare opens up the prospect of a whole host of strap lines if there were ever to be a renaming; some appropriate, others not. Possibly the most appropriate might be "All the World's a Stage…" (from As You Like It), which is not too dissimilar from the existing 'Hello World.'

Limited survey response indicates limited economic benefit research into renaming

'Celebrity' airports are actually fewer in number than supposed. These are the ones that might be expected to gain from the attachment of the celebrity name, other than those previously mentioned.


Celebrity name

Celebrity type

Burbank, California, USA

Bob Hope


Arnold Palmer Regional, Pennsylvania, USA

Arnold Palmer

Professional golfer

Rimini, Italy

Federico Fellini


Boscobel, Jamaica

Ian Fleming


Bergamo (Orio al Serio), Italy

Il Caravaggio


Santa Ana, California, USA

John Wayne


Rome Fiumicino, Italy

Leonardo da Vinci

Painter, all round polymath

New Orleans, Louisiana, USA

Louis Armstrong


Salzburg, Austria

W A Mozart

Classical musician/composer

Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Nepal

Sir Edmund Hillary/Sherpa Tenzing Norgay


Warsaw, Poland

Frederic Chopin

Classical musician/composer

Battle Creek, Michigan, USA

W K Kellogg


These airports received a questionnaire enquiring about economic benefits from the name and the research that had been undertaken. Unfortunately, there were few replies at the time of publication.

While non-response probably indicates that no research has taken place, in some cases that is unsurprising. New Orleans Airport did respond but apologised that it had no real data to share on the matter. But the Fellini Airport for example has been closed for six months and only recently reopened under new management and with its new name.

Arnold Palmer airport has few scheduled services while the Ian Fleming airport naming remains mired in controversy. Some people felt that a prominent Jamaican should have been honoured instead. In this instance though the Prime Minister is adamant that adoption of the Ian Fleming name gave Jamaica "an image much larger than it would otherwise have had," and that this was the place where the creativity emerged that enabled him to write 13 James Bond novels, and to become one of the world's most famous authors.

It should also be remembered that some airports spurn the opportunity to attach themselves to prominent individuals or trademarks. Or at least they may appear to. One of the best examples is Denmark's Billund Airport, which is situated very close to the original Legoland at Billund. That theme park opened in 1968 and attracts two million visitors each year. Yet Billund Airport studiously avoids any mention of Legoland on its website, talking instead in more general terms about 'West Denmark.'

There are now six Legolands, including one in Windsor, close to London Heathrow Airport. While it might be considered strange to incorporate the plastic building bricks into Heathrow's name - especially so as it is in the midst of a large scale building programme - the absence of Lego from an airport name in its own country is perplexing.

However, there are underlying reasons. The airport was built four years before Legoland and sought to establish its own identity. Lego is also protective of its own brands and in general does not want to share them with other entities. Accordingly, there has never been the need for a cost/benefit analysis on the prospect of a re-naming.

Occasionally airports seem to go out of their way not to promote themselves or their terminals in this fashion. Singapore Changi Airport's low cost terminal for example, which opened in 2006 in competition with a similar one in Kuala Lumpur, was labelled simply 'Budget Terminal.' While there was little chance of passengers going to the wrong one, it did not inspire much confidence in the facilities it offered. Ironically, it was quite well kitted out in comparison with many other low cost airport terminals. It closed down in Sep-2012, LCCs transferring to other terminals.

The Changi Airport 'Budget Terminal' 2006-2012.

Trade association bodies are wary of some airport names

Airport representative organisations also have not undertaken any research on the subject, either. That is the case anyway with ACI World and ACI Europe. Senior executives in the World office do hold strong views on the subject though. One of the personal opinions expressed there is that the matter is getting out of hand and that in many cases it means the airport is referred to by the name of the famous person rather than the location so that no-one knows where the airport actually is located. There is some anecdotal evidence that happened with the aforementioned Robin Hood (Doncaster-Sheffield) airport as the public was so attracted to the name (and also because the town of Doncaster had never previously been connected with air travel).

But Robin Hood is not automatically linked with Doncaster or Sheffield either. The reverse would be the case if Birmingham Airport were to adopt 'William Shakespeare' into its title because Shakespeare is associated with an area not far from the airport that is referred to as 'Shakespeare's Country.'

William Shakespeare at least is famous worldwide. That does not always apply. Fame may spread no further than national boundaries or even regional boundaries within a country. There is some suspicion within Spain about renaming Madrid's Barajas Airport after Adolfo Suarez, despite his immense political significance for Spain itself. Outside Spain it is really only historians that know who he was. Similarly with Granada Airport/Federico Garcia Lorca - named after a poet executed during the Spanish Civil War - when Granada houses the Alhambra, the most significant Islamic architecture in Spain and probably Europe, which is one of Spain's major tourist attractions, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As with Legoland there is no apparent desire to shout about it.

Ciudad Real's airport could not be saved by Don Quijote

Probably the best example of a 'worst case scenario' airport naming is that of Ciudad Real's airport, also in Spain. Situated well over 100 km south of Madrid, but on the AVE high speed rail line to Seville at least, the public-private green field airport at Ciudad Real was supposed to offer a realistic alternative to budget airlines operating at (north) Madrid's Barajas (now Adolfo Suarez) Airport. But it was delayed by regulatory and other matters and by the time the first spade was put in the ground a new terminal was under way at Barajas, which released cheaper terminal space for the LCCs there. The result was that they stayed put. Ryanair never even entertained a switch.

Turning eventually to cargo and logistics as a potential saviour Ciudad Real was too distant from most places of high population to succeed in that field, even though it lies close to an east-west motorway that connects Valencia and Lisbon. Eventually it closed down altogether and protracted attempts are being made to auction it off. The AVE line is doing nicely carrying commuters from Ciudad Real to Madrid, the former having become a distant suburb of the latter thanks to its existence, rather than airline passengers in the other direction.

The airport had several names while it was under construction and during the brief spell it was operational. The most ridiculous was the first - Don Quijote, the hero of Miguel de Cervantes' novel, in which, amongst other things while losing his sanity he 'tilts at windmills,' i.e. fights imaginary enemies; windmills he believes to be giants. Don Quijote may have lost his sanity but investors in the eponymous airport fared much worse. They lost their shirts.

Another example can be found in Mexico where the official names of the airports to be privatised there in the 1990s were heroes of the Mexican revolution and bidders often had no idea where they were on the map.


  • Most airports are named after a single place. Where they are named after a person it is most frequently politicians, royalty or religious figures. There can be hidden dangers in doing so;
  • The use of celebrity names is not widespread. Some of the best examples can be found in the UK;
  • There is little evidence of formal, structured evaluation of the financial benefits of airport naming, including celebrity naming;
  • Some airports do not use the names of entities or individuals when there would be an obvious benefit. But they may 'play' on the name in other ways;
  • Some trade associations are not convinced of the value of these naming activities as it can generate confusion;
  • The adoption of a slogan may potentially be hazardous and needs to be thought through. Often they appear humourous but one person's humour can be another's insult.

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