Who Airports Are Named After
Most of us want to spend the least amount of time in airports as humanly possible — but their walls contain some intriguing tales. For example, as you’re waiting in long lines or browsing duty-free shops, have you ever stopped to wonder how an airport got its name?
From presidents to renowned actors, the people airports are named after have led dramatic and storied lives.
Let’s take a look at some of these inspiring individuals, including a beloved queen who championed women’s rights, a dedicated civil rights advocate and a war hero who inspired a nation in one of its darkest hours.
O'Hare International Airport — Chicago
Chicago is synonymous with The Cubs and deep-dish pizza, but native son Edward “Butch” O’Hare is a true symbol of the spirit of Chicago and the nation.
The son of an attorney who worked for Al Capone (and later testified against him in the tax evasion trial that famously sent the gangster to prison), O’Hare was more interested in flying than joining the courtroom. After completing military school, he won an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy and became a hero following the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In February of 1942, Butch was flying a fighter plane as nine Japanese bombers descended on the USS Lexington. Though alone in the air, he valiantly fought against the attackers. He was praised with the Medal of Honor for “one of the most daring, if not the most daring, single action in the history of combat aviation” and became an inspiration for his fellow service people.
In 1943, Butch led one of the first nighttime fighter missions, during which he was struck by a Japanese bomber and his plane plummeted into the ocean. To this day, the plane has not been found, but his memory lives on in one of the world’s busiest airports.
Cristiano Ronaldo Airport — Madeira, Portugal
Okay, so maybe international soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo is more of a household name than some others on this list (which might explain why there’s also a hotel and museum named after him), but for the people of Madeira he represents a true rags-to-riches story.
Born to humble beginnings, Ronaldo went on to become one of the world’s greatest soccer stars. His accomplishments include being a four-time player of the year and the first Portuguese player to play and score in three World Cup tournaments. To honor their star, the powers-that-be also included a famously bad bust of Ronaldo at the airport (sadly, it was recently replaced).
During his career, Ronaldo was once called the next George Best. Funny enough: Best also has an airport named after him (in Belfast, Northern Ireland), proving that Europe really does love its soccer!
Hartsfield-Jackson Airport — Atlanta
The second busiest airport in the United States (after Chicago’s O’Hare), this facility is actually named after two people, William B. Hartsfield and Maynard Jackson. Both were important and influential Georgian politicians.
Hartsfield, who was the mayor of Atlanta for an astounding 23 and 1/2 years, was known as the city’s “Father of Aviation.” He was involved in building the airport from the ground up, from finding the site on which it was constructed (fun fact: it was an abandoned racetrack) to pushing for technological advances, like lights so planes could take off and land at night. His leadership attracted airlines like Delta to Atlanta, helping both the airport and the city’s economy grow.
Maynard Jackson was the first African-American to serve as Atlanta’s mayor. At the age of 35, he was also the youngest person to serve as mayor of a major southern city. Committed to social change and civil rights, Jackson was influential in transforming Atlanta into a commercial and transportation hub. His name was added to the airport after he died of a heart attack in 2003.
LaGuardia Airport — New York City
A native New Yorker born to Italian and Jewish parents, Fiorello LaGuardia was a celebrated politician and three-term mayor of New York City. In 1916, he became the first Italian-American elected to Congress, but his political aspirations were put on hold during World War I, when he became a fighter pilot and war hero.
LaGuardia returned to Congress in 1923, where he fought child labor and supported women’s voting rights. Ten years later, he became mayor of New York City and helped secure federal funds to build playgrounds, hospitals, housing and an airport (named for him, of course!).
LaGuardia, whose first name translated to “Little Flower” (as he was lovingly called), died in New York at the age of 64. But he left behind a legacy of cleaner city streets, a cleaner government — and one of the world’s busiest international airports.
Queen Alia International Airport — Anman, Jordan
Sadly if not surprisingly, it's rare to find airports named after women. In the U.S., for example, there isn't a single national or international airport bearing the name of a woman. But in Jordan, a fascinating woman has gotten her due.
A much-beloved figure, Queen Alia al-Hussein was the third wife of King Hussein — but she left a legacy all her own.
The daughter of a Jordanian diplomat, she grew up exploring the world with travels to Egypt, Great Britain, Turkey, Italy and the United States. In 1971, she returned to Jordan and worked for Royal Jordanian Airlines, where she promoted tourism and met King Hussein. The two embarked on a whirlwind romance and were married after just three months.
As queen, she set up a separate office from the king and was determined to establish her own identity. Queen Alia was a champion for arts, education and women’s rights, pushing for women to be able to stand up for election in Parliament. She was known as a true humanitarian and given the nickname “Mother of the Poor.”
The queen was tragically killed in a helicopter crash in 1977. In 1983, Aman built a new international airport and named it in her honor.
Will Rogers World Airport — Oklahoma City
In the 1920s and ‘30s, Will Rogers was one of America’s most renowned performers, with a career spanning vaudeville, Broadway shows and films like “Ziegfeld Follies.” He was also a respected writer who wrote a weekly column for the “Saturday Evening Post.”
Rogers was born in the Cherokee Nation of Indian Territory, near present-day Oologah, Oklahoma, and the state has honored their home-born hero many times over. In Claremore, there’s a memorial museum in his honor, and 13 public schools bear his name.
Ironically (a theme strangely consistent on this list), Rogers died in a plane crash, in Alaska in 1935.
Jackson–Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport — Jackson, Mississippi
Medgar Wiley Evers was an African-American civil rights activist from Decatur, Mississippi who was tragically assassinated in 1963. Throughout his life’s work, which included serving in World World II and becoming the first field secretary for the NAACP in Mississippi, Evers was known for his passionate and courageous efforts to fight racial injustices.
He was dedicated to helping African Americans register to vote, desegregating schools and standing up against businesses that segregated or refused service to African Americans. Evers made a difference posthumously, too, as the national outrage after his death increased support for what would become the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The airport was named for him in 2005. Additionally, The City University of New York named a campus after Evers, and President Barack Obama designated his former home as a national landmark in 2017.
Jomo Kenyatta International Airport — Nairobi, Kenya
The father of the Kenyan nation, and one of the most prominent figures in African history, Jomo Kenyatta played a defining role in fighting colonization and white supremacy. Born in a small agricultural village, he became a well-educated scholar who studied at universities in Moscow and the London School of Economics before returning to Africa. As a politician, he traveled around the country urging people to rally for independence.
Though he was implicated in a violent rebellion and arrested (he denied being involved), Kenyatta remained a hero to the people. He was elected Prime Minister when Kenya gained its independence in 1963 and later became the nation’s first president.
Under his leadership, Kenya re-opened relationships with the west, and its economy and infrastructure flourished.
Princess Juliana Airport — St. Maarten
Just across the street from this airport at Maho Beach, you can sun, swim and take selfies with planes that look like they’re just above your head, making this a favorite among airplane enthusiasts.
With so much attention on the planes, it’s easy to overlook the person for whom the airport is named. This is a shame, as Princess Juliana was a larger-than-life figure.
Described as warm-hearted, unapologetic and incredibly self-confident, she served as Queen of the Netherlands from 1948 to 1970. Juliana is fondly remembered for her dedication to the people, including trenching through deep mud to deliver food and clothes after a damaging storm.
Though her reign was marred with scandal, including one daughter secretly converting to Catholicism and another marrying a former member of the Nazi party, Juliana remained widely loved. She resigned from the throne in 1980 at the age of 71, but remained committed to humanitarian efforts across the Netherlands.
Indira Gandhi Airport — Delhi, India
Often called the “Iron Woman of India,” Indira Gandhi was the country’s first (and only) female Prime Minister. (Contrary to some beliefs, she was not the wife of Mahatma; in fact, they weren’t even related. Her name came from her husband, Feroze Gandhi.)
Indira was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, and ascended to the role after his death in the 1960s. Resilient, strong and opinionated, she defied even her own party to nationalize the country's banks. She also peacefully resolved territorial disputes with Pakistan, leading to the creation of Bangladesh, ushered India into the nuclear age, and introduced new farming methods, which created a surplus of grains and helped with India’s chronic food shortage.
Gandhi’s controversial leadership was put to the ultimate test in 1975 when an Indian court convicted her of election malpractice and banned her from politics for six years. In return, Gandhi declared a state of emergency and imprisoned thousands of people who’d accused her of wrongdoings. She was eventually ousted from power in 1978, but ever the fighter, she returned to her reign a short two years later.
Gandhi’s true downfall came in 1984, amidst tensions with Sikh separatists. After ordering the Indian army to confront a group of Sikhs at a temple, which resulted in several hundred casualties, Gandhi was shot and killed by her own bodyguards, who were both Sikhs.
Charles De Gaulle Airport — Paris
Charles de Gaulle was a French soldier, writer, revolutionary and leader. Described as intelligent and zealous, he fought in World War I and World War II, notably refusing to accept France’s truce with Germany and fleeing to England. There, he formed a government in exile and became the leader of the Free French, a movement that called for continued war against German forces.
De Gaulle’s political ambitions peaked in the 1950s when he ushered France into a new republic. Known as the Fifth Republic, this new government varied from previous models (called Republics 1-4, in case you were wondering) in that it shifted power away from parliament and to the president. Under a new constitution, De Gaulle would appoint a Prime Minister, control the country’s armed forces and be directly elected by the people.
Today, France retains it its Fifth Republic, a testament to De Gaulle’s influence.
De Gaulle retired in 1969 and died of a heart attack a year later.
Jorge Newbery Airport — Buenos Aires, Argentina
Nicknamed “Mr. Courage,” Jorge Newberry was a civil servant, engineer and fearless pilot. After studying at prestigious universities in the United States, including Cornell and the Drexel Institute, he returned home to Argentina and held prominent roles in the navy. He began his career in aviation through hot air ballooning, a popular activity in Argentina, completing 40 trips and breaking records for the largest balloon created and heights soared. He went on to write the first newspaper article on aviation in Argentina and to obtain a professional pilot’s license.
Newberry crossed the Río de la Plata and broke the world altitude record, and helped to create and establish the Argentine Air Force. He continued to play a key role in aviation until his death.
Sadly, like so many others on this list, Newberry’s life was cut short by a plane crash when he was just 38 years old. (Why so many airports were named after people who died in a plane crash is not something we can explain.)