Editor's Note: This is excerpted from Fr. de Souza's regular Sea to Sea feature, Convivium August/September 2013.
It's summertime and relatives travel for weddings, family gatherings and reunions. Businessmen close up shop and head out on vacation or on various boondoggles that can slither onto the expense account. Students head abroad seeking to broaden their horizons and empty their bank accounts. For many reasons, a lot of people head to the airport.
In the era of online bookings, many travellers have learned airport codes. It helps to know that, for example, YYZ will land you in Toronto, but YYT will take you halfway across the Atlantic to St. John's. Canadian airport codes all begin with Y, which leaves us less flexibility in the remaining letters, meaning one has to pay attention, lest a booking made with dreams of cosmopolitan Winnipeg (YWG) ends up in beautiful but rather less cosmopolitan Wabush, Labrador (YWK).
Your editor found himself this summer in airports in both Poland and that truly strange and curious place, California. Do airport names matter? They must to someone, otherwise why give them names? They matter to me, too. No matter what depredations one may have suffered en route, being welcomed to, say Ronald Reagan National in Washington, D.C. brings a smile to the lips in a way that landing at Pierre Elliott Trudeau in Montreal does not. Political figures seem to get the most glory in airport names, likely because politicians decide who airports are named after. It can provoke historical ruminations in passengers so minded. When flying from YYZ, Pearson, to YXE, Saskatoon John G. Diefenbaker airport, one might be inclined to think of the 1962 and 1963 federal elections. Or it can be a reminder that the NDP has never held federal office, otherwise YXE would no doubt be Tommy Douglas airport. The BNA Act and our constitutional history are relevant. The federal power over airports explains why Quebec has airports named after Trudeau and Jean Lesage (YQB, Quebec City) but no Réné Lévesque. The Shawinigan airport still bears no one's name, so if Justin Trudeau gets into power, he can name it after Jean Chrétien, a fair return for Chrétien renaming the Montreal airport after Trudeau père.
Poland has a rather more culturally edifying attitude toward its airports. You fly from the political capital, Warsaw, where the airport is named after Fryderyk Chopin, to the royal and religious capital, Krakow, where the airport is named for Pope John Paul II. Very edifying. Or one can travel from Copernicus airport (Wroclaw) to Lech Walesa (Gdansk). A pianist, a saint, a scientist and a champion of freedom. Most edifying.
California, in contrast, offers a rather different account of human achievement, with Bob Hope Airport (Burbank), John Wayne (Orange County) and Charles M. Schulz (Sonoma County). It's not all show business out west, for they have their saintly airports, too, though no one would really realize it—San Francisco, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, San Diego. The saints' names are, by California standards, ancient history. Show business is today. One fears for a future where the aggrandizement of politics meets the celebrity of show business in an Arnold Schwarzenegger airport somewhere. Can you make Terminator into an airport code?
What does it matter? Would I trade Chopin airport for the Wojciech Jaruzelski Martial Law Terminal if the bathrooms were rather more easily reachable? I would hope not, because names are important, and airports are the civic gateways of the 21st century, like the great gates on medieval cities.
There are political figures that are so important to their countries that airports ought to be named after them. One thinks of the former Chiang Kai-shek airport in Taipei. Landing there some years ago, the name itself reminded me that I was arriving in a democratic country instead of a communist one. From that point of view, it is puzzling that South Africa's largest airport, in Johannesburg, is named after Oliver Tambo, but there is no airport named for Nelson Mandela. On the whole, it is an inflation of politics to name most of our airports after politicians. Politics is supposed to serve other spheres of achievement, not dominate them. So an airport named after Chopin is marvellous. I would delight in one day flying to Salzburg just to land at the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart airport. I get to Rome almost every year, and landing at Leonardo da Vinci is just right. One would think that in Florence the airport would be Michelangelo's, but rather it was formerly named after the great explorer who gave his name to the new world, Amerigo Vespucci—suitable enough for a transportation facility.
We are not well served in Canada. We could improve our lot by swapping the names of our Toronto airports, with Billy Bishop taking the larger airport and Pearson being hung on the smaller version downtown. It is a surprise that Vancouver has not yet been renamed Terry Fox. It could then call itself YFX, which actually is the code for the airport in St. Lewis (Fox Harbour), Newfoundland, but should be the code for the airport in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, in honour of the local university, St. Francis Xavier.
Airport names and their codes are fun, as people speak about them casually now, as in "I am heading out to YVR"—the current code for Vancouver. Careful though with the new lingo: not all Y airport codes are Canadian. YUM, for example, might sound like Montreal (YUL) but is actually Yuma, Ariz. They have bilingual signs there, too, but one must hablar rather than parler. And then there is YAK, the code for Yakutat, Alaska. Let that be the final word on summer travel, for if you are not going to Yakutat in the summer, don't go.