Coffee Break: What’s in an airport name?

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on April 22, 2019 - April 28, 2019.
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One Monday morning, at a Malaysia Airlines booking office in Chennai.


Counter staff: Good morning sir, how may I help you?

Passenger: Hi. I need to be in Kuala Lumpur by Tuesday evening. Do you have an afternoon flight available?


Sure. Let me book you in. (Keyboard clattering) Thank you for booking your flight with us, sir. You’ll be flying on Malaysia Airlines and landing at the SIA on Tuesday evening.

What’s that again? How am I flying with Malaysia Airlines but landing with the SIA?


Oh, your flight is heading to the SIA main terminal sir.

But I want to go to Kuala Lumpur directly. Malaysia Airlines flies directly there.


Yes you are, sir.

So why am I switching airlines midway for a four-hour flight?


 Um, you’re not, sir. This is a direct flight.

But you just said I’ll be landing at my destination with Singapore Airlines.


Oh, sorry for the confusion, sir. I meant SIA the airport, not the airline.

SIA the airport … Wait a minute. That is still not where I want to go!


But aren’t you are heading to KL?

 Yes, I am.


Yep, this is the airport to fly into if you want to be in Kuala Lumpur, sir.

No, no. I know my geography, young man. You’re sending me hundreds of kilometres away from Kuala Lumpur.


Erm, I’m not…

Please fix my booking. I do not want to land at the Senai International Airport, I want to go to Kuala Lumpur.


Oh no, no. So sorry for the confusion, sir.

I demand to see your supervisor. I want a refund and an apology.


Sir, we did book you correctly. You’ll be landing at the Sepang International Airport. That’s the new name for what was formerly  the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

What? When did they move the terminal to Sepang?


No, it wasn’t moved, it has always been in Sepang. They just decided to rename the terminal. Here are your booking details.

 Wait,  it  says here I’m flying to Kuala Lumpur KUL. But you said it’s SIA. I don’t understand.


Ah, that is the IATA code for the airport. IATA is the International Air Transport Association.

So it’s now called SIA, but the code is KUL. Why didn’t they change the code to SIA too?


Well, I can’t speak for IATA, you understand. But I suppose it may be because IATA’s code system covers, oh, I don’t  know how many thousands of airports.

But this is so confusing.


Yes sir, but the decision to rename KLIA  was made by the local Malaysian authorities. As for  IATA , I imagine they have more important things to do with their time.

Well, it can’t be that hard. IATA just needs to change the code from KUL to SIA in their system.


Well, there is also a little issue with the SIA code already being assigned, sir.

What? Which airport is that?


Let me check ... Ah yes, SIA represents the Xi’an Xiguan Airport,  right outside Xi’an city in China. That airport closed down in 1991.

Alright then. Oh one more thing.


Yes, sir?

Did they also rename that other KLIA airport? The one they spent a few billion ringgit to build.


Yes, they did sir. That’s klia2. It’s now called SIA2.



No, just SIA with the number 2.

Fascinating. Thank you.

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