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Why Canadian airport codes start with a ‘Y’

Have you ever wondered about why Toronto-Pearson airport is “YYZ,” of where “YUL” is the code for Montréal?

Canadian airport codes are some of the most head-scratching letter combinations in the world, and on a recent trip, I decided to do some research into this phenomenon for many.

Around the world, the airport codes are often pretty self-explanatory: SFO for San Francisco, JFK for New York-John F. Kennedy, HKG for Hong Kong, LHR for London Heathrow, and so on.

So why isn’t Toronto, TOR? Or Vancouver, VAN?

There are a few theories to this…

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IATA, or the International Air Transport Association, says three-letter codes vary around the world. In Canada, all airports must start with a letter ‘Y.’ YVR (Vancouver), YYC (Calgary), YTZ (Toronto-City), YUL (Montreal), all start with a “Y.”

There are a few exceptions including smaller regional airports where they may not start with a “Y.”

“Originally, the letter Y was dropped in front of the two-letter code that had been used for the location before World War Two. However, over the years, as new airports have been assigned codes, the designators for Canadian points have become less ‘obvious’.” 

IATA

What about the last two letters?

I’ve often wondered about YYZ. The YZ portion of the code dates back to Morse Code railway stations along the CN Railway. The station in Malton, Ontario, where the airport is today was YZ.

The same is for HZ (Halifax) and QB (Québec City). They then dropped a Y in front of the letters to designate the airport code (YHZ, YQB, respectively).

Other cities used other identifiers like railway station codes as opposed to morse code/telegraph stations to identify the last two letters, hence more recognizable combinations like VR (Vancouver), EG (Edmonton), or OW (Ottawa).

Winston is currently a freelance technology and travel broadcast journalist, consultant, and is the creator and founder of Master Travellr—Canada’s destination for travel news, guides, and budget recommendations.

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