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 – which turned 70 years old this week – 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 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, 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 InsideFlyer.com, 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” 😉

  13. “Friendship” was a very nice, welcoming name for an airport. They should have kept it. As for Dulles, almost no one other than aging Boomers know for whom it was named. A young neighbor argued that it was named after a town that once occupied the location.

  14. Your dates are off on the BWI designation. I lived in Baltimore from 68-72 and it was named Friendship at that time. Very comfy little airport and nowhere close to resembling today’s behemoth. Don’t know if we have progressed or not.

  15. ^^ Though few recognize the John Foster Dulles name, a few learn about it. That’s how I learned about Butch O’Hare, Lt. Baer (renamed Fort Wayne International Ha Ha Airport, ok Ha Ha is not the name), etc.

    Politician worship is too much. Airports should be primarily named after cities and, in uncommon exceptions, people, and rare exceptions, politicians. I give a pass to Dulles and JFK for politicians. Bill and Hillary Clinton National and Reagan National is too much.

  16. BWI is convenient for many who live in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, especially now since the Intercounty Connector (MD 200) opened, shaving a half-hour off the driving time from northern Montgomery County. There is an express bus from there as well as frequent MARC Penn Line service from DC to the airport (28 minutes). Getting to National or Dulles involves crossing the Potomac on the Capital Beltway and dealing with northern Virginia traffic. Dulles, however, still has a greater selection of nonstop and particularly international flights – it is a United hub. BWI is pretty much owned by Southwest and that works for many people, though.

    Washington National Airport got the “Reagan” name in early 1998 as part of Grover Norquist’s campaign to name everything in the world after Reagan, once his Alzheimer’s diagnosis came out. The Republicans in Congress were more than happy to push this, and it was politically difficult for anyone to vote against it, or for Bill Clinton to not sign it. The renaming was opposed by the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority (which was created to take over National and Dulles from the Federal government), local politicians and journalists and other people, and it was noted that this ironically went against Reagan’s distaste for the Federal government meddling in local affairs. The full name became “Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport” with full knowledge that newcomers and younger people (who are now middle aged people) would shorten that to “Reagan Airport” rather than the former “National Airport” – Mission Accomplished.

    Metro (Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority) had called the adjacent station “National Airport”, as when it started, the idea was to have short, simple names for stations. The Republicans in Congress made it very clear that if Metro wanted additional federal funding, the name on maps and signage had to change. The same thing with the National Park Service which operates the George Washington Parkway which runs by the airport – change the signs, please, to include Reagan, if you want continued NPS funding.

    Ronald Reagan was NOT one of our better presidents. Though as a movie actor he played the role of President very well, his tax and economic policies began the erosion of the middle class in favor of the wealthy. In particular, through the use of supply-side economics, which has never worked. Economic vitality is created by putting money in the hands of the poor and middle class, which spends it, creating demand for goods and services, which in turn causes additional employment to provide those goods and services. Wealthy people who get even more money do not create jobs if there is no demand for what those jobs create; it just goes into stock buybacks or into accounts in the Cayman Islands or elsewhere.

  17. Thud Driver
    I’m a 78 year old dude who flew LAX-Friendship in August of 1959 on a red-eye AA 707 in one of it’s first month’s of non-stop service. My ticket was sold as LA to Washington. Had to catch a shuttle bus from the airport to mid-town DC then bus to National to continue on flying to Charlottesville. I had saved a $20. Travelers Check to buy my $10 fare on Piedmont Airlines to Charlottesville but was charged $19.94 overweight in LA. Came across the USA with 6 cents in my pocket. Had to borrow a dime from the Piedmont ticket agent to activate the pay phone to make a plea to my dad to buy a ticket home. When I stepped off the DC-3 in Charlottesville the baggage handler shouted “Here’s your son, COD.”. At 17, my face turned as red as my jacket! Good memories of a by-gone era.

  18. I grew up in DC’s Virginia suburbs and have always flown from National except for West Coast and European destinations. My first flight from Dulles was in the mid-1970s when I made my first business trip from Washington to San Francisco. I didn’t fly from Baltimore (yes, that’s what I’ve always called it) until the early 1980s on Republic Airlines (later bought by Northwest) who flew us from Baltimore to Detroit to Green Bay on the same aircraft. I wish they had kept the name Friendship. It was less pretentious. As far as I am concerned, it is Baltimore’s airport, not Washington’s airport. I now live in DC not far from the DC-MD state line, yet the Baltimore airport is a miserable 35 miles away while Dulles is only 23 miles away. National, of course, is the closest, being only 9.4 miles away. The differential in taxi fares is staggering. I’ve successfully avoided flying out of Baltimore since 2006.

  19. The story implies that before Dulles opened, large jets too big for National went to BWI. Before Dulles opened ALL jets went to BWI. National was served only by propeller and turbo-prop aircraft. National opened to jets in April of 1966 and they had what they called “the perimeter rule” which limited nonstops to only 650 miles except for a couple of exceptions that already had nonstop service such as Miami, Tampa, Chicago, Atlanta. Eventually exceptions were made and there are now a limited number of nonstops to west coast cities.

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