The Strange Story of How Baltimore’s Friendship Airport Became BWI

BWI airport is named for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. But that’s not the interesting part of its name. Baltimore/Washington Airport – now 72 years old – used to have a different airport code altogether.

Airports take on new names for a variety of reasons. Seventeen years ago Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport was renamed Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The city has even spent money trying to get people to call it Hartsfield-Jackson.

Since I first moved to Washington DC twenty four years ago I still call the area’s close-in airport “National” and not “Reagan.” We need to stop naming airports for politicians, but my reason for this isn’t political. You can tell when someone moved to the DC area based on what they call the airport. If it was National when they got there they still usually call it National.

BWI airport was once known as Friendship International airport and its airport code was a logical BAL for Baltimore. Before Washington Dulles opened to the public in 1962, planes that were too large for close-in National airport went to Baltimore. Baltimore used to be the jet airport for the DC area.

bwi airport
Credit: BWI Airport

Once it became prudent for the airport to market itself as an alternative for travel to the Washington region they sought to become Baltimore Washington International airport or BWI. However BWI was already taken by the airport in Bewani, Papua New Guinea.

When Air Niugini wanted to fly to Hawaii the US government demanded the airport code in exchange for the route authority. Air Niugini no longer offers Honolulu service, while Bewani Airport – 608 miles Northwest of Port Moresby – remains BWP.

The federal government extracted the letters BWI for Baltimore’s airport from the government of Papua New Guinea. That’s a story not many people – even regulars at BWI airport – know. But that’s also just the first step.

Nelson Ormsby, who ran policy development for Maryland’s Aviation Authority for decades, shared with me more details a couple of years ago.

  • Each airline serving the airport had to sign off on the change
  • Eastern Airlines was a holdout, not wanting to spend money reprogramming computers or changing signs and materials.
  • So the airport agreed to delay the change while airlines burned down existing pre-printed items.
  • At the suggestion of United’s head of government affairs, the airport had their home state Senator Mac Mathias call Eastern CEO Frank Borman. Mathias had been a strong supporter of NASA’s moon landings, and Borman was commander of Apollo 8, which was first to fly people around the Moon. Borman agreed.

Still not everyone was fond of losing the old name “Friendship.” Actress Carol Channing, for instance, wrote to Maryland’s governor asking to keep the old name because it was just nice to fly into an airport called Friendship.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Interesting story. I always remembered the James Bond film “Goldfinger” having scenes and references to Baltimore’s Friendship airport.

  2. Greg…Friendship was the name of the church that sold the land to make the airport. It still has a cemetery on the grounds of the airport. If you look on Google maps you can see it. Not sure how you access it though.

  3. The cemetery is actually quite large and easy to access. It’s right by the airport fire station

  4. Ineresting trivia…enjoyed reading the history. Totally agree that placing politician’s names on public structures and infrstructures is a BAD idea (especially in these days of strong partisan positions).

    On a parallel though, I don’t necessarily agree with corporations paying billions to pay for stadium naming rights, but wouldn’t a corporation get more publicity with their name on an airport than a stadium? After all, more people see airport names than ever visit a stadium.

  5. The Washington Post had a weekly contest called the Style Invitational. Each week some absurd topic was created and readers were invited to respond to it.

    One week was: Solve some local (D.C.) problem.

    A winner: Problem – Inappropriate political renaming of local infrastructure. Solution – Ronald Wilson Reagan Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant.

    (There actually is a Blue Plains Sewage Treatment Plant.)

  6. I enjoy stories like this, and how the Space Coast area of Florida was able to secure the 3-2-1 area code.
    My current home airport, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International, is FLL (KFFL), but I have long wished it were FLH. I’m surprised the city of Hollywood hasn’t insisted on that airport code, which is still available. I sometimes wonder how it became FLL.
    Growing up in Alexandria VA, our home airport was National.

  7. I remember Nelson fondly from when I worked with MAA almost 30 years ago! (And thanks for this post, which let me “Well, actually…” a very smart friend.)

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