LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) —Louisvillians will soon be floating — flying, in fact — like a butterfly.
Airport officials overwhelmingly voted Wednesday to rename Louisville International Airport for native son Muhammad Ali, the city’s heavyweight boxing legend and humanitarian who died in 2016.
The new name: Louisville Muhammad Ali International Airport.
The airport's three-letter identifier, "SDF," will not change. Alice International Airport in Alice, Texas, uses the "ALI" designation.
The Louisville Regional Airport Authority's board, which is appointed by Louisville's mayor and Kentucky's governor, approved changing the name at the recommendation of a working group.
"Even as we honor and celebrate him, we will also positively boost our city's global identity," said Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, an airport board member. "Muhammad loved this city, and he was never shy about bragging on us. So we should certainly never be shy about bragging on him. And he's part of us."
Board member Nikki Jackson, the senior vice president and regional executive of the Louisville Branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, served on the working group. She said the move can "amplify the brand" of the Louisville region.
Speaking as a black woman, she told the board she is "always looking for opportunities for people who look like me to be validated and exalted and celebrated. It doesn't happen a whole lot.
"And so for me -- just as a resident of this great city -- this is incredibly important."
All but one board member voted for the change in a voice vote. Mary Rose Evans, the board's vice chair who voted "present," did not immediately return a phone call Wednesday afternoon.
The action still requires finalizing an agreement with Muhammad Ali Enterprises to use Ali's name, but airport authority executive director Dan Mann said he expects that can be done soon and at no cost to the airport agency.
Lonnie Ali, Muhammad Ali's widow, said in a statement that the name change will give visitors to Louisville another "touch point" with Ali.
"Muhammad was a global citizen, but he never forgot the city that gave him his start," she said. "It is a fitting testament to his legacy."
Airport officials plan to start taking steps to change signs and launch a communication plan, with a "significant kickoff" during a Ali festival during the first week of June, Mann said. The airport plans to spend $100,000 on marketing and other costs related to the change from its operational fund, he said.
The Federal Aviation Administration still needs to approve the change.
The airport, formerly known as Standiford Field, became Louisville International in 1995.
Jim Welch, the airport authority chair, said the working group's research found that Ali's name recognition was positive. Changing the airport's name could also benefit Louisville, he said.
"It would really signal clearly to the world that we're a progressive city, we're multicultural, we're inclusive and we are a community of the globe," he said. "And we really want to enhance our visibility and positioning not only in the United States but around the world -- and we couldn't think of a better way to do it than to do this."
Wednesday evening, as air passengers strolled through the terminal and learned the news, some like Clifford Turner were overcome with joy.
"One thing I will always remember: Wherever he was and wherever he fought, he would always say that, 'I am the champion from Louisville, Kentucky,'" said Turner, who grew up just blocks from Ali and considered him a friend. "To come to Louisville, get off a plane and see that this airport was named after Ali is just a blessing."
While another passenger, 23-year-old Chance Moore, didn't know Ali personally like Turner did, he feels just as connected to the champ.
"I come from the same part of town Muhammad Ali comes from," Moore said. "Where he comes from, the west end, it's hard to make it out of it. And I always see that as a way of survival of the fittest when I see him that he comes from, you know, a poor environment, and he worked his way up."
Moore, whose knowledge of Ali seemed endless, said he's adopted that same fighting spirit. He said it's important that a city where Ali was once denied a hot dog and cup of coffee in a downtown diner will now share his name and legacy in perpetuity with the world.
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