The curious politics of memorial airport names – a genre dominated by dead men

The curious politics of memorial airport names – a genre dominated by dead men

A row has erupted over the seemingly innocuous decision to rename Dubrovnik Airport in Croatia. It’s now officially known as Ruđer Bošković airport, after the famous astronomer, physician, poet, philosopher, mathematician and diplomat, who was born in present-day Dubrovnik in 1711. The polymath is accredited with laying the foundations for atomic theory and discovering the absence of an atmosphere on the moon.

Why the bad atmosphere in the Balkans, then?

Notions of nationhood are fluid, especially in the Balkans, where maps have been redrawn countless times, often amid bloodshed and ethno-religious tensions. The row is not actually about the provenance of Ruđer Bošković but his father Nikola, who was born (supposedly) in the nearby village of Orahov Do. It overlooks Dubrovnik but sits across the border in present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina.

DUBROVNIK, CROATIA - 2019/04/12: Dubrovnik airport seen from above. (Photo by JP Black/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Dubrovnik airport has recently gained a new name (Photo: 2019 JP Black/Getty)

So, the Bosnians are claiming Nikola as theirs?

No, and this is where it gets complicated – Serbian scholars claim that Nikola was in fact a Serb and therefore lay tenuous claim to Ruđer. So much so the leaders of Republika Srpska – a Serb-majority entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina – want to build their own airport near Orahov Do and name it after Ruđer Bošković. Fortunately, the Italians haven’t waded into the dispute; they also lay (a partial) claim to the genius of Bošković, who was born to an Italian mother and studied in Rome.

Thorny issue then, naming airports after people?

The Greeks will attest to that. Until recently they were locked in a bitter dispute with their neighbours in North Macedonia because officials there renamed Skopje Airport after Alexander the Great. The ancient warrior-king was a huge influence in the region but is central to Greek heritage. Amid cries of cultural appropriation from Greece, the row rumbled on for years. In a “goodwill gesture”, North Macedonia dropped the name in 2018.

No such controversy at Liverpool John Lennon airport?

On the contrary. When Liverpool’s lesser-known Speke airport was renamed after the city’s famous son it was a PR masterstroke. “Yoko Ono was honoured by the gesture and personally got involved,” says Robin Tudor, head of comms at the airport. “She pulled the curtain on the new name.” The Queen also turned up for the grand unveiling, having presumably forgiven Lennon for returning his MBE. “It just became this global news story,” says Tudor.” Our small Liverpool airport was being heard about around the world.”

Any other famous people have airports named after them?

Loads. There are more than 350 eponymous airports and counting. In fact, the world’s busiest – Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International in the US state of Georgia – is named after two local politicians: William Hartsfield and Maynard Jackson. Non-US citizens could be forgiven for not knowing who they are. But most will have heard of ex-president John F Kennedy, who had New York International airport named after him following his assassination in 1963. Charles de Gaulle in Paris is another famous eponymous hub. There’s also Pope John Paul II airport in Poland, Galileo Galilei airport in Italy, and George Best Belfast City airport in Northern Ireland.

Hang on, that is a lot of blokes mentioned so far

Female representation is a bit of an issue. Research by the travel firm Netflights found that 95 per cent of eponymous airports are named after men. “The fact that so few of them recognise the achievements of women – especially those who have contributed to the field of aviation – needs to be rectified,” lamented the organisation. It subsequently launched a campaign to have Leeds Bradford Airport named after Yorkshire’s Amy Johnson, the first female pilot to fly solo from England to Australia. However, that failed to get off the ground.

Who are some of the lucky few women?

The doyenne of derring-do Amelia Earhart, who was the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic, had her local airport in Atchison, Kansas, named after her. As well as setting records in the sky, the high-flyer wrote numerous books before disappearing in 1937. The 39-year-old’s plane is thought to have crashed into the Pacific Ocean during her attempt to become the first female aviator to circumnavigate the globe. Other notable female eponyms include Mother Teresa, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, and Josefa Camejo, a heroine of the Venezuelan War of Independence.

How do I get an airport named after me?

Being a dead man helps. Most eponymous airports are named after deceased males. Notable exceptions include Bill and Hillary Clinton National Airport in Arkansas, US, and Madeira Airport International Cristiano Ronaldo, named after the very-much-alive Portuguese footballer. Having a political career is also helpful. According to Netflights’ research, a quarter of eponymous airports are named after politicians. Being a creative genius is the next best route, with artists accounting for a fifth of eponymous airports. Failing that, do something extraordinary in the cockpit of a plane. But as Amy Johnson will attest, it’s no guarantee.