Robert Silk
Robert Silk

I grew up in Louisville, Ky., as a huge fan of the city's most famous son, Muhammad Ali, so when the city announced in January that it had renamed the former Louisville Airport after Ali, I felt a surge of righteous pride. 

To be sure, Louisville is far from alone in naming airports after people who are enduringly famous. Large airports in this country are named for Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, John F. Kennedy, John Wayne and Louis Armstrong, to name just a few.

Some of the more prominent examples around the world include Paris' Charles de Gaulle, Rome's Leonardo da Vinci and Istanbul's soon-to-be-closed Ataturk Airport. Fewer are likely to be familiar with Galileo Galilei Airport in Pisa, Italy; the Alexander the Great airports in both Greece and North Macedonia; the Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, airport named after Genghis Khan; John Lennon Airport in Liverpool, England; and the relatively newly renamed Cristiano Ronaldo Airport in the Portuguese archipelago of Madeira.

Still, along with exciting me, Louisville's announcement about the new airport name piqued my curiosity, specifically a section of the news release in which the local visitor authority said it expected a resulting increase in Ali-related tourism. Can the name of an airport actually impact visitation to an area, I wondered? After all, don't people book flights into an airport merely because it is a means of entry into a destination they have already decided to visit?

In a subsequent conversation, Louisville Tourism vice president of marketing Stacey Yates provided what I viewed as a very reasonable answer to that question.

Outside of the U.S., she said, Ali ranks alongside bourbon, the Kentucky Derby and fried chicken in the list of primary things that people associate with Louisville. In the wake of Ali's June 2016 death, which brought a surge of worldwide publicity to the city, she said, Louisville Tourism put out a brochure suggesting an Ali trail of sorts, with the downtown Muhammad Ali Center museum being its highlight.

Naming the airport after Ali will raise brand awareness about the tourism track, Yates said.

Using the Ali/Louisville example for illustration, I also spoke with MMGY Global, a marketing firm focused solely in the travel and hospitality arenas. MMGY chief creative officer Stewart Colovin told me that an airport can definitely have a lasting impact on how someone feels about a city.

"It's often the first and last experience in a destination," he said.

As to the value of an airport name, Colovin said it can be important, especially if that name ties in with a story the destination is trying to tell, as the Muhammad Ali name does in Louisville.

He said Louisville Airport would do well to add such things as murals or exhibits about Ali to accentuate that connection.

"Anytime you have something that complements the brand, it only makes the brand stronger," Colovin explained.

Of course, not all airport names are accomplishing such an aim. Some have become something like brands in and of themselves. Few people, for example, know that pilot Butch O'Hare was the first naval recipient of the Medal of Honor during World War II. But O'Hare Airport's name is closely associated with the city of Chicago. Los Angeles' airport, meanwhile, isn't named after anyone, but its code letters LAX have evolved into a nickname that has become a brand the world over.

As for Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport (whose code remains SDF), I'll borrow from the famously boastful and truculent champ himself. Quite simply, it's the greatest airport name of all time.

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