Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Sioux City SUX, and that's OK

By Bob Greene, CNN Contributor
updated 8:57 AM EDT, Sun May 5, 2013
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
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT