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NBO or NRB, Which is the Correct One for Nairobi?

Something is fascinating about Nairobi. Is the correct abbreviation NRB or NBO? Well, the logical and conventional should be NRB, which we even adopted (the locals). Check the yellow strip of any matatu from upcountry that travels to Nairobi; you will see it is abbreviated as NRB. This makes sense as all three letters are extracted from the full name.

However, you have seen Nairobi as NBO in flights and the iconic GTC tower sometimes back. You probably have the same question as me: Where do the O and B come from? This will make sense after we briefly review the IATA code guidelines.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA)

IATA is an association of over 80% of the airlines in the world; it was founded in 1945 to ensure smooth operation, sustainability, and, most importantly, security and safety in air travel. IATA is behind the guidelines and standard practices in air travel and shipping. For instance, regulating lithium batteries in flights.

IATA is headquartered in Montreal, Canada. It is not a governmental organization but an independent association.

This body is responsible for naming and assigning airport codes under the three-letter abbreviations for easy reference, especially in flight communications. These codes are typically derived from the city or airport’s name, making them intuitive and recognizable.

The Unique Naming Convention

It is not only in Nairobi but in several other airports. The IATA codes do not align with the apparent abbreviation. For instance, Heathrow Airport in London has the code (LHR), and Beijing (PEK)

Some airports have funny codes like (LOL) for Derby Field in Nevada, (OMG) for Omega Airport in Namibia, and (GAY) for Gaye Airport in India.

But sometimes, the code matches and makes sense; the code (JFK) is for John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Some airport IATA codes are simply the first three letters, including;

  • DOH: Doha
  • AMS: Amsterdam
  • CAI: Cairo
  • ATL: Atlanta
  • MEL: Melbourne
  • DEN: Denver
  • KIS: Kisumu

Why NBO Not “NRB”?

You might wonder why “NRB” wasn’t chosen, given that it seems like a logical abbreviation for Nairobi. The IATA’s naming process doesn’t always follow the strict first three letters of the city name rule. Several factors, including existing codes, phonetics, and historical considerations, can influence the final choice.

Well, for our case, the answer is that Naval Station Mayport already took that code NRB in Jacksonville, Florida, USA. Letter N is reserved for the Navy bases in the USA.

The next best option would be NAI, but Anai Airport in South America already took that.

So, whatever was chosen for Nairobi was suitable as it is memorable and easy to pronounce.

With three letters, it is evident that the codes may run out; the combination can have just 17,576 unique codes, and we have over 41,000 airports in the world.

Moi International Airport in Mombasa is (MBA), while Eldoret International Airport is (EDL)

Kenya Airways, the national carrier, is also abbreviated as KQ and not KA since Korean Air was already assigned the code when Kenya Airways came into existence in 1977.

Do you know what else NBO is? National Bank of Oman!

Historical Factors

Sometimes, historical factors play a crucial role in determining airport codes. The IATA aims to avoid confusion with existing codes and maintain aviation industry consistency.

Initially, the code was two letters, but with the construction of many more airports, it pushed for a three-letter code. The existing airports with two letters were added an X; a good example is the famous Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), which was initially (LA)

Still, on the subject of history, the codes are maintained with the old name of the airport. Heathrow Airport (LHR) was originally London Heathrow Airport, which explains why there is an L to begin with.


While it may seem unconventional at first glance, the abbreviation follows the established naming conventions of the IATA code system. These codes prioritize simplicity and memorability, making them practical for the aviation industry and travelers who cannot pronounce ethnic names.

NBO is not just a random code but a carefully curated one to keep the entire aviation industry running smoothly.

But for non-aviation purposes, it will always be NRB, but established is way smoother and easier to pronounce, and it sounds cooler.

Explore more IATA Airport codes here.

Ultimate Guide to Nairobi Airport: Jomo Kenyatta-JKIA

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