Five years ago, Louisville renamed its local airport. City officials were looking for something that would increase passenger traffic, attract new flights and foster local business development. The old name, "Standiford Field," didn't do any of those. So the naming committee decided to think globally: they went for "Louisville International."
There was one slight problem, which critics did not hesitate to point out: The name was misleading. Louisville had no international passenger flights. The only traffic that crossed U.S. borders was generated by United Parcel Service cargo runs. "Yeah, you can fly internationally," people said--"but you have to be wrapped inside a cardboard box."
Despite the jokes, the strategy worked. Since its rechristening in 1995, Louisville International has doubled in size. UPS, which has its hub there, is now the largest private-sector employer in Kentucky, and the company's 1998 expansion was the largest economic development project in the nation. Last year, FedEx quadrupled its facility at the airport.
In addition, there now actually are flights from Louisville that cross the international border. They don't cross it by much; so far, Toronto is the only destination. But the airport can assert that its name is technically accurate. And more important, everyone involved seems to feel that the 1995 gamble was a success.
Of course, the name was not magic--much of the progress in Louisville can be traced to a $750 million airport-improvement project, in which the renaming was only one minor element. But the new name didn't hurt, either, says J.D. Nichols, the vice president of the airport board. "It shows where we are, and where we want to be," he says. "It's a good start, and you have to start somewhere."
Louisville isn't the only city that has tried such a move. An increasing number of airports are adding the word "international" as a way to suggest importance and generate business. U.S. Customs officials discourage the practice. They argue that the term implies certain facilities and services that frequently do not exist at that particular location. The fact is, some "municipal" or "regional" airports provide service to countries all over the world. And some "international" airports, such as the one in Louisville, don't. Contrary to what many passengers believe, there are no formal rules governing which kind of facility is which. As far as the FAA is concerned, an airport can call itself anything it likes.
Not that a name upgrade always works. Frequently, the new name produces neither the increased traffic nor the added flights that were envisioned. In the same year that the Louisville airport changed names, Sacramento Metro Airport became Sacramento International. The new title was pushed by the Metro Chamber of Commerce to signify Sacramento's aspirations and readiness for international traffic. Five years later, the airport still doesn't have even a single scheduled international flight.
Some skeptics think that languishing that long with an inaccurate title reflects poorly on both the airport and the city. "I thought it would make the community look ridiculous, and it did," says Illa Collin, a Sacramento County supervisor who voted against the change. "I have had several occasions to be on a plane landing in Sacramento and hear people coming into the area joke about it."
All this can be confusing for passengers, which is another reason why U.S. Customs recommends against changing names without changing service. While a new name is relatively easy to acquire, obtaining the appropriate Customs rights can be much more difficult. To handle international arrivals and departures, an airport must be designated by U.S. Customs as a "landing-rights airport" or an "international port of entry." The functional difference between these two ratings is that a landing-rights airport must request a Customs official to be present for a specific international arrival, but a port of entry can require the presence of an official and Customs must comply. For example, if an international flight requested to land in Bisbee, Arizona, "we would have to provide the services," says Joe O'Gorman, U.S. Customs program manager, "because Bisbee's an airport of entry."
Bisbee is a good example, because it highlights the fact that many of the airports rated "international" by Customs are not the first that would come to mind in a survey of airline passengers. Neither Kennedy nor LaGuardia in New York is a port of entry. Nor are Hartsfield International in Atlanta, LAX in Los Angeles or O'Hare in Chicago-- although Chicago's Midway Airport, which has no international flights, is. Among the roughly 60 airports that are designated as ports of entry are Caribou Municipal in Maine, Eagle Pass Municipal in Texas and Cut Bank Municipal in Montana.
Most of these ports of entry were established at a time when long- distance air travel was not an issue, and the Customs work force was concentrated along the nation's borders. "You took off in Toronto," says O'Gorman, "and an hour later, you either landed or crashed." Some airports that may have very little traffic today--international or domestic--were once integral Customs stations.
"Technically," O'Gorman says, "we could remove the designation. But once a government entity has established a level of designation which a community perceives as `prestige,' it's next to impossible to remove." And there's no impetus for Customs to upgrade a landing- rights airport (such as Hartsfield or O'Hare) to a port of entry, either. With a landing-rights airport, "we have a little more say in working around scheduling restraints," says O'Gorman. "Of course, we're never going to deny service to a major carrier, but it does give us a little leverage."
That, combined with the antiquated international designations, leaves most of the nation's largest airports without port-of-entry status. In fact, of the 20 busiest airports in the U.S. last year, only two are Customs ports of entry: Miami International and Detroit-Wayne County Metropolitan. Detroit presents yet another wrinkle in the name game: Why would one of the nation's busiest international airports of entry still insist on calling itself "metropolitan"?
If Detroit added the word "international," jokes Michael Conway, the airport's public relations manager, "you'd have to take a breath in the middle of our name." He says that the term metropolitan was chosen to distinguish Metro from the Detroit City Airport, at one time a viable competitor, and to indicate that Metro is a county-owned and county-operated facility. To change the airport's name now would be superfluous, Conway says, because "everybody knows we're international."
On the other hand, if you're a smaller place and passengers don't really know what sort of status your airport has, the temptation to try a name upgrade is much harder to resist. Such was the case in 1998 in Terre Haute, Indiana. Officials at Hulman Field, the local Terre Haute airport, wanted to advertise the fact that they had started offering regular cargo flights to Canada. Changing the name was, according to one airport manager, "an important decision from a marketing standpoint." Believing a new name would help attract more business, the airport became Terre Haute International. It didn't work. Since that time, all the international carriers have pulled service from Terre Haute, due to a lack of traffic. The name is now strictly a token of civic hope, not economic reality.
And in Terre Haute, as in Sacramento, there are many people left wondering whether an international name has any real effect at all. Chris Fotos, a reporter for the industry publication AviationNow, has followed the airport name game for years. Those that "try to boost their image by adding the name `international,'" he says, "don't fool anybody, including the airport itself." Service and actual facilities are what's crucial, he says, and "at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what the name is."
But Fotos would have a hard time convincing the civic leadership of Louisville that an airport's name is irrelevant. Mike Bosc, of Greater Louisville Inc., the region's economic development agency, insists that the change "is working--even better than anticipated." He believes it was a key factor in the corporate decisions that brought new cargo business and passenger service, both chartered and scheduled.
And one tiny sliver of that business is, indeed, international. Every day, along with the hundreds of departures from Louisville to various places in this country, there are three Air Canada non-stops to Toronto on Beechcraft 900 commuter planes. As long as those keep flying, the airport's glitzy name isn't exactly a fib.