The Local Airport, by Any Other Name
August 17, 2015
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  • Judging by his résumé alone, Albert Gallatin would seem a fine choice to have an important local landmark in Montana, like an airport, named after him.

    A career statesman and treasury secretary under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, the Swiss-born Mr. Gallatin helped plan the Lewis and Clark expedition, after all.

    But it was more than 70 years ago, long before travelers booked their flights on the Internet, that Gallatin Field, in Bozeman, got its name.

    These days, Gallatin Field goes by — take a deep breath — Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport at Gallatin Field.

    It’s a mouthful, concedes the airport’s director, Brian Sprenger. But in an era of search engine optimization, it gets the job done for those who want to fly to an airport 90 miles from Yellowstone Park.

    And traffic, Mr. Sprenger said with a certain pride, has spiked in the four years since the airport was rechristened.

    “In this day and age, branding has an important part,” he said. “Gallatin Field, it doesn’t relate to anyone outside the area, so people got confused.”

    Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport at Gallatin Field was originally named for Albert Gallatin, a former treasury secretary who helped plan the Lewis and Clark expedition. Credit Library of Congress; Justin Lubke/Yellowstone Park Foundation
    Gallatin Field is just one of a growing number of small and midsize airports that have had to cope with flat or declining customer traffic as airline consolidation funnels fliers to major hubs. Others that have considered the name change or gone through with it simply wish to ease any uncertainty on where to be found.

    New signs are on order for the Conroe-North Houston Regional Airport — which, as of Oct. 1, will no longer be Lone Star Executive Airport, a name that told fliers that it was somewhere in the vast expanse of Texas.

    Even at industry trade shows, those who are supposed to know such things were flummoxed. “It’s like 95 percent of the people there didn’t know where we were,” said the airport’s director, Scott Smith.

    Surveys to gauge public sentiment on the switch found close to a 50-50 split, with state pride motivating some, in light of the state flag having originated in the county where the airport is, Mr. Smith said.

    “Don’t change the name,” one objector wrote in an email, three times in all capital letters.

    Still, officials approved the new name last week.

    In the infancy of aviation, the fallback strategy for naming an airport was almost solely after a respected person linked with the territory — or a city or county best known to local residents.

    That was the case at Stewart International Airport in New Windsor, N.Y. — named after a prominent local family that donated the airport’s land. But if the airport’s operator, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has its way, it will become more closely tied to a recognizable neighbor.

    Since it is 60 miles from New York City, and is looking for ways to revive its slumping traffic and relieve congestion at the area’s three major airports, the thinking goes, perhaps New York International Airport at Stewart Field?

    The Port Authority, which has tried to change the name before, declined to comment, but its executive director, Patrick J. Foye, told a local business group this year that including a geographic reference “will appeal to the users of Expedia and Orbitz and people outside the geographical region of the Hudson Valley,” according to The Daily Freeman, a local newspaper.

    Not everyone is thrilled. A Stewart descendant has said that changing the name would be a betrayal of the Stewart family’s legacy, not to mention a violation of the lease between the state and the Port Authority. It states that the Stewart name should remain until 2099.

    It’s a reaction similar to the one that greeted the suggestion that the struggling Burbank Bob Hope Airport become Los Angeles Burbank Airport.

    The idea did not go over well in some quarters. Mr. Hope’s family objected. The local paper, The Burbank Leader, weighed in, saying, “The name honors the truth of its history — the city’s, the man’s and the airport’s.” Mr. Hope himself was a pilot, the editorial said, and was born in 1903, the year of the Wright Brothers’ first flight.

    Michael Fiore, a marketing consultant commissioned to study rebranding the airport, takes great pains to insist that technically no legal name change is afoot.

    Still, he recommended adding a geographic touchstone to remove the mystery of its position on a map. Then last month, the airport’s staff urged that it be promoted as Los Angeles Burbank Airport. Any decision rests with the airport’s operations commission.

    “The biggest lesson we’ve learned through all of this is there needs to be an obvious geographic identifier,” Mr. Fiore said. “If you are not from here, people don’t understand where it is.”

    Considering the airport’s fluid history, a different name is about due. Honoring Mr. Hope in 2003 shortly after his death represented the airport’s seventh name.

    That is quite enough for the Hope family.

    “The position we’re in is a difficult one,” Mr. Fiore said. “We look like we’re trying to take away a brilliant man and his legacy. We want to be sensitive to that.”

    Some airports, particularly larger ones, are content to stay as they are.

    Few people outside Las Vegas — and many in the area — are aware of Senator Pat McCarran, who died in 1954 and whose surname is immortalized in McCarran International Airport. A discussion to swap McCarran for the city’s name went nowhere.

    In Milwaukee, General Mitchell International Airport appears etched in stone.

    Jay Sorensen, an airline consultant, once floated the idea of something along the lines of Milwaukee Chicago North, contending that a connection to the Windy City would trigger economic benefits. Nothing against Gen. William Mitchell, the early 20th-century officer and advocate of air power who came from a well-known local family.

    The notion never got off the ground.

    “There is too much animosity in this town to be associated with Chicago,” said Mr. Sorensen, a Milwaukeean who calls the transition in Bozeman to Yellowstone “an absolute home run.” He added, “There is a little brother attitude here, and we don’t ever want to be called a little brother.”

    Manchester, N.H., swallowed its little-brother pride and added Boston, which is about 50 miles away, to its name in 2006. Mr. Fiore, who examined the transition to Manchester-Boston Regional Airport from Manchester Airport, noted that out-of-town passengers initially increased from 33 to 52 percent of total passengers, though the airport has been unable to reverse a decline in overall traffic.

    At least one airport went against the tide and plugged in a familiar name last year. What once was Wichita Mid-Continent Airport is now Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport, in Wichita, Kan. Though former President Eisenhower, who had his boyhood home in Kansas, was born in Texas, count officials of the southern Kansas city as among those who like Ike.

    In Montana, all was not lost for those looking to keep the Gallatin name alive. “Some people still call it Gallatin Field,” Mr. Sprenger said.

    And, for those who choose to travel by water, there is still the Gallatin River.