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Alternate Approach: Airport naming rights

What do silver screen legend John Wayne, hard-living, 1960s soccer star George Best and former Nova Scotia premier and federal opposition leader Robert Stanfield have in common?


September 6, 2013
By David Carr

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What do silver screen legend John Wayne, hard-living, 1960s soccer star George Best and former Nova Scotia premier and federal opposition leader Robert Stanfield have in common? Each has an airport named for him in Orange County, Belfast and Halifax respectively. Three airports, three men and not an aviator in the bunch.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the renaming of New York’s Idlewild Airport on Christmas Eve 1963 after the
slain president.

At the permanent dawn of the jet age, New York’s international airport captured the glamour of the shortened presidency more than Boston Logan – closer to Kennedy’s roots – or Washington National, since renamed after former president Ronald Reagan, ever could.

Airports have traditionally been named for the cities they serve or the land where they sit. Heath Row was a 15th century Middlesex hamlet near London. For its first 45 years, Toronto’s Lester B. Pearson International Airport was commonly known as Malton. It was renamed after the former prime minister and Canada’s only Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 1984. The name helps gloss over the fact Toronto’s airport and Canada’s busiest, sits in another city, a point Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion, who is almost as old as powered flight itself, never tires of bringing up.

The trend now is to name airports after larger-than-life politicians or local boys made good. And it is almost always boys. Amelia Earhart Memorial Airport in Atchison, Kan., is one notable exception. The jokes about the airport being hard to find almost write themselves.

The airport name game often gives aviators short shrift, but not always. Sydney, Australia and Sydney, N.S. have airports named after aviation pioneers and legends: Sir Charles Edward Kingsford Smith and J.A. Douglas McCurdy, respectively. Toronto’s City Centre Airport was renamed Billy Bishop, the First World War flying ace – much to the chagrin of Owen Sounders who had already named the regional airport after the favourite local son.

Charles Lindbergh has at least three installations named for him. San Diego International Airport, also known as Lindbergh Field because that is where the Spirit of St. Louis was designed and built; Winslow Lindbergh Regional Airport – a Lindy hop to Arizona – because it was an airport he designed; and, a terminal building at Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport to commemorate that the Detroit-born Lindbergh spent his childhood
in Minnesota.

St. Louis International Airport is named after Albert Bond Lambert, a local aviator, Olympic medalist and inventor of Listerine, one of the great creations for anybody standing cheek to jowl waiting to board in an overcrowded airport
departure lounge.

In Canada, four airports are named for prime ministers. In addition to Pearson there is John G. Diefenbaker International Airport in Saskatchewan and MacDonald-Cartier International Airport in Ottawa. Odd that neither George Washington nor Abraham Lincoln have major airports named after them, but John Foster Dulles, a secretary of state does. Lincoln is the name of the fictitious airport in the Arthur Hailey novel, Airport

Perhaps the most head scratching is the renaming of Montreal’s Dorval Airport after Pierre Elliot Trudeau. This is not to suggest that Canada’s most internationally celebrated prime minister doesn’t deserve a global installation like an airport. But no one person did more to destroy Montreal as an air transport hub than Trudeau with the ill-advised white elephant, Mirabel.

Many airport names are for the here and now which is certain to evolve into a rush to name an airport even before the honoree has gone to ground (Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport). The difficulty with this is that while legendary aviators such as Lindbergh, McCurdy and Kingsford-Smith have legitimate roots that plunge deep into an airport, non-aviators grow less relevant with passing generations. There will be exceptions such as Kennedy, Leonardo da Vinci in Rome and Charles de Gaulle in Paris. (Did the Brits ever consider thanking Sir Winston Churchill by renaming Heathrow?) It is more likely that airport names will experience generational change as the glister of legacies fade and new film, sport and political stars pop up.

Perhaps airports will follow the lead of theatre and sport stadia operators and begin selling naming rights. HSCB, the self-described “world’s local bank” has come closest. HSBC has reinforced its global footprint by decking out air bridges and terminal buildings at 48 busy international airports in 24 countries with HSBC logos and messaging. Can the Atlanta Coca Cola International Airport or Tim Hortons Terminal at Hamilton be far behind? It is food for thought. This is David Carr writing from the Justin Bieber International Airport in Stratford, Ont. 


David Carr is a Wings writer and columnist.