BWI: The Strange Story of How Baltimore’s Friendship Airport Got a New Name

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

Airports take on new names for a variety of reasons. Fifteen 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 moved to Washington DC twenty two 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, jets that were too large for close-in National airport went to Baltimore. Baltimore used to be the large 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. And that’s how BAL got to start using BWI in 1973. 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.

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. Oddly, the DC airport (which is actually in Virginia) remains “National” to most locals. But the Baltimore airport (which is in suburban Anne Arundel County) is firmly “BWI” in local-speak. I’ve almost never heard anyone using the proper name of “Thurgood Marshall Baltimore-Washington International”.

    But “Friendship” takes me down memory lane….

  2. Took my flight training at “Friendship” back in 1972. I remember the controllers calling themselves “Friendly tower”.

  3. @david- I doubt more than 1% of the area population know about the Thurgood Marshall part of the name. I have never heard it referred to anything other than “BWI”. But a good number of people in the region refer to DCA as “Reagan” now because the name change was far enough in the past (over 20 years) that relative newcomers don’t know it any other way.

    It took an Act of Congress to force Metro to change the name of the Metro station to match the new airport name- didn’t happen until 3 years after the airport name changed.

  4. I agree that we should stop naming airports after politicians. DCA really aggravates me because in my lifetime I’ve heard people completely switch from saying Washington National to Reagan National. How in the world did we allow Reagan’s name to supplant the father of our country?

  5. I still call National by its original name. I even still call Houston’s largest airport Intercontinental even though Bush is so much shorter

  6. I totally agree about not naming public buildings after politicians. Republican, Democrat, or Whig, I find it incredibly anti-American and something you’d see in a totalitarian regime. These politicians didn’t build or pay for these buildings – the taxpayers did.

    The only reasonable exception I’d consider is that once a politician has been deceased for at least 50 years (meaning most of his/her syphocants are also gone too), then we could consider it. It would leave the honor reserved for very, very rare leaders.

  7. It seems there’s a generational, or maybe geographical, divide on how to pronounce BWI.

    I’ve flown in and out of it for decades. Have always called it “bee-wee.”

    My 30-something daughter who lives near D.C., hearing me refer to it that way recently, said she’d never heard that before. To her, it’s B-W-I, i.e., “bee double-ewe eye.”

    After an extensive 30 seconds of research on Google, it seems “bee-wee” is a Baltimore thing.

  8. You can hear it called Friendship Airport in a scene in “Goldfinger” when Sean Connery is on Goldfinger’s jet. I love BWI-my home airport. Easy to park, move around, and get some great places.

  9. I know I’ve found a fellow old timer when someone slips and refers to the airport as Friendship – I heard it just last week when the guy sitting next to me out of DFW told the person on the other end of his call “No, I’m not coming into National – Friendship is closer to the house. I mean BWI.”

    I’ve lived in suburban DC for 50 years, flown out of that airport thousands of times and never heard it called Bee-Wee. But I do still call National “National.”

  10. I was born and raised in the DC area throughout the 60’s and 70’s and flew out of BWI on an Air Force C-141 once, but never ever did I hear Bee Wee. What a hoot. I’ll have to ask my longtime “Ballmer” friends about that.

    Related note, here in ATL, one of the most popular Facebook Checkin sites for Hartsfield is “Atlanta Latoya Jackson Intergalatic Space Port and Hot Wing Express”…

  11. Native Marylander here, now living in DC: Bee-Wee is a very localized Baltimore-AA County reference to BWI Airport.. Several long time Baltimore and Annapolis friends and acquaintances use this. I’ve never heard Bee-Wee anywhere else.

  12. @Jim Smith – hahah on the ATL check-in!

    @Gary – Are you sure you didn’t meant to say extorted instead of extracted? “The federal government extorted the letters BWI” 😉

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