Thursday 30 March 2023

SJO? But the airport is not in San José!

A comment that we see very often on social networks, the San Jose airport is not located in San Jose

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30 March 2023 - At The Banks - BCCR

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TODAY COSTA RICA – A comment that we see very often on social networks is that the San Jose airport – the Juan Santamaría International Airport (SJO) – not located in the city or province of San Jose but in fact in Alajuela (the city and province).

From the AviacionCRnet Facebook page

In fact, some people get very upset that they refer to this airport as San José, Costa Rica or that its SJO are used., on its Facebook page, explains why this is.

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Currently, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) is the entity in charge of assigning three-letter codes to airports. IATA codes are only assigned to airports with regular commercial flights.

There is another set of four letter codes that are also used for airports, codes assigned by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). These four letter codes are used for official purposes and most airline passengers have no idea what the codes are.

FYI, the IACO code for the San Jose airport is MROC.

To assign the IATA code, three letters of the name of the main city served by the airport are taken as the first option, this does not mean that it is the geographical location of the airport (as it happens with the Juan Santamaría airport). However, this option is not always possible, so other options are taken that do not always seem to make much sense, but are linked to historical references or the name of the airport.

So, while the country’s main airport is actually located 20 kilometers west of downtown San Jose, the Juan Santamaría International Airport is the primary airport serving San José, the capital of Costa Rica.

By population, San Jose, with a population of some 1.415 million, is the largest city in Costa Rica, followed by the cities of Heredia (356,000), Cartago (228,000) and Alajuela (190,000), according to numbers published by

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Airlines are governed by IATA codes in their operations, for this reason, SJO is designated on flights and announced as San José, Costa Rica. Designated by IATA for being the main city served by the airport.

We have also seen other data that the code once used by the Sabana Airport was preserved, however, we have no confirmation that this is the case.

There have been political proposals to request a change of code to the airport, however, it is something that does not make much sense. Furthermore, the codes they have proposed are already used by other airports, such as ALJ, the Alexander Bay Airport is an airport serving Alexander Bay, a town in the Northern Cape province in South Africa.

And, SJO is not the only airport to have a designator that refers to a city other than its geographic location. There are many other airports where the code doesn’t really resemble the city name, such as where the closest pattern was already in use by another airport, those where the name of the city has changed after the airport’s code had been assigned (Mumbai is still BOM for Bombay, and Beijing is still PEK for Peking) and where the city has more than one airport (London’s Heathrow is LHR, Gatwick is LGW and the more recent London City is LCY or New York City’s LGA and JFK, LaGuardia and John F Kennedy airports, respectively).

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YYZ is the most extreme example I have been to. If you don’t know, try to guess which city.

So why SJO?

In short, because San José is the main city served by the airport. When you see the airport code, in most cases it is the three-letter IATA code that is being used for the airport in question. Don’t like it, you can always fly a complaint to the IATA.

Important travel tip

When making travel plans to fly to Costa Rica, make sure you book San Jose, Costa Rica (SJO) and not the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport, commonly known simply as San Jose International Airport, in California, with the IATA code, SJC.


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"Rico" is the crazy mind behind the Q media websites, a series of online magazines where everything is Q! In these times of new normal, stay at home. Stay safe. Stay healthy.

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