Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Sioux City SUX, and that's OK

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
May 5, 2013 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
Sioux City, Iowa, has capitalized on its unfortunate airport initials with T-shirts, coffee mugs and postcards.
Sioux City, Iowa, has capitalized on its unfortunate airport initials with T-shirts, coffee mugs and postcards.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Bob Greene: The acronym for Sioux City's airport has long been a headache
  • Greene: The city tried to change it, but FAA would only act if it was a safety issue
  • So the city "very successfully made lemonade out of lemons"
  • Greene: Now you can buy SUX postcards and mugs and proudly wear SUX T-shirts

Editor's note: CNN Contributor Bob Greene is a best-selling author whose 25 books include "Late Edition: A Love Story"; "Chevrolet Summers, Dairy Queen Nights"; and "When We Get to Surf City: A Journey Through America in Pursuit of Rock and Roll, Friendship, and Dreams."

(CNN) -- "We don't really care what the federal government wants to call us," Aran Rush was saying the other afternoon. "We know that we're a good place."

Rush is the executive director of the convention and visitors bureau in Sioux City, Iowa, and we were discussing what has happened to the little airport with the big problem.

Fly Sux T-shirts are flying off the shelves.
Fly Sux T-shirts are flying off the shelves.

The problem was never the airport itself. By all accounts, Sioux Gateway Airport, serving Sioux City and the surrounding area in northwest Iowa, northeast Nebraska, eastern South Dakota and far southern Minnesota, is a fine facility.

But the three-letter identifier -- the three capitalized letters that appear on baggage-claim tags, that are used nationwide to refer to the Sioux City airport, that pilots and air-traffic controllers use to designate Sioux City -- has long been a headache for the town.

Bob Greene
Bob Greene

Every city, in this era of marketing and branding, likes to present itself as something special -- a destination that is sparkling and inviting, a wonderful place for families to settle in, or for businesses to set up shop.

So, to the dismay of Sioux City, it has not been especially helpful that, for as long as there has been commercial air travel into the town, travelers have glanced at the tags on their checked baggage and have noticed that the official designator for the town is:

SUX

Yep. Generations ago, federal aviation regulators gave Sioux City that identifier. It was a shortened version of "Sioux." That was in the years before those three letters took on a somewhat unfortunate tone.

Los Angeles International Airport was LAX; O'Hare International Airport in Chicago was ORD; LaGuardia in New York was LGA; Sioux City was SUX.

No big deal.

Until it was.

No city, no airport, wants to be connected to those letters. It's not a great calling card, not an ideal howdy-do to the world beyond the town's borders. Many people find the word (however you spell it) offensive -- and if you, by chance, think the word is not very nice, try to consider how the proud citizens of Sioux City have felt.

On two occasions -- in the 1980s, and again at the beginning of this century -- Sioux City earnestly and formally petitioned the Federal Aviation Administration to change the letters. The word just wasn't doing the town any good.

On both occasions, nothing happened. I covered Sioux City's second attempt to get rid of SUX; a spokeswoman for the FAA at the time signaled to me that the town's odds of getting three new letters were slim.

The Sioux City airport director at the time told me the FAA informed him that the only reason it would change a three-letter identifier was for safety considerations. He conceded that he didn't know how SUX could be construed as a safety issue, "unless pilots are laughing so hard when they hear it that it distracts them from doing their job."

The reason I got back in touch with Sioux City's leaders last week is that recently the federal government has shown it will speedily get involved in aviation-related issues when it wants to. Congress stepped in to ease air-traffic delays caused by federal spending cuts; the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration, to put travelers' minds at ease, backed off on its plan to allow passengers to bring small knives onto planes.

So I wondered if Sioux City was still trying to persuade the government to allow it to get rid of those three dreaded letters

"We decided to go completely the other way," said David Bernstein, president of the airport's board of trustees. "The FAA wasn't going to change it, so it wasn't going to do us any good to whine about it."

Thus, the town made a bold decision:

It would embrace the SUX designator. It would make it part of Sioux City's charm -- a whimsical part of the civic personality.

T-shirts were printed up with those three capital letters on the front; hats and postcards and coffee mugs and balsa-wood airplanes and silver-wing pins were manufactured, all jauntily bearing the letters. On I-29 between Sioux City and Omaha, Nebraska, a big billboard was rented, displaying, in huge type, those letters, as a way to lure passengers to the airport in Iowa instead of the one in Nebraska.

"In warm weather, you can walk around Sioux City and see people wearing the T-shirts all the time," Bernstein said. "At our coffee shop in the airport, between one-third and one-half of net revenues come from the sale of items with those three letters on them."

The city -- in the words of tourism director Rush -- has "very successfully made lemonade out of some lemons. Our treating the situation with good humor has emblemized the spirit of Sioux City -- one of grit and determination, something no label from the government can change." The airport commission's Bernstein said that "it's better to be memorable than to have three initials no one can really recall."

In fact, in the spirit of all this, the town ended up renaming the official website for the airport; it is now www.flysux.com.

And who, on a national scale, can argue with that message? These days, with overcrowded planes, long security lines and hefty fees to check baggage, flying often really does ... well, you know.

What will Sioux City do about the letters in future years? It could once have sought counsel from two of the most famous people ever born there: twin sisters Ann Landers (Eppie Lederer) and Dear Abby (Pauline Phillips), who left Sioux City to become the two most renowned newspaper advice columnists in history. But both have passed away, and are no longer available for commiseration.

So the town is on its own. The mayor, Bob Scott, a lifelong resident, told me that he wants the world to know that Sioux City doesn't do what those three letters on the baggage tags says. It is, he said, a great place to live, "and we're thankful for that."

He sends emphatic word to potential visitors that they will be warmly welcomed:

"Absolutely. We'd love to have them.

"And," the mayor said with a laugh, "they can buy a T-shirt."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bob Greene.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 20, 2014 -- Updated 1624 GMT (0024 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT