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.

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