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Flashback Fridays--New York LaGuardia Before Southwest Airlines

Aviator C

I’ve done several Flashback Friday posts looking at what some of our airports were like “before Southwest Airlines,” and I hope they give a sense of what the airport was like before our arrival.  One of our newest airports is New York LaGuardia (LGA), but it has a history as unique as the city it serves.  Perhaps out of all the airports in the country that are named for an individual, LGA is truly representative of its namesake, Fiorello LaGuardia, former mayor of New York City.

Mayor LaGuardia was a major proponent of air travel, and he felt that his city should take a leading role in that development.  He made headlines when he refused to deplane from a TWA flight in Newark.  Because his ticket read New York City, he wanted to fly to New York, not Newark.  The flight continued on to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, and he talked to reporters during the short trip across the Hudson and Manhattan.  American agreed to start serving Floyd Bennett, but the airport had many inadequacies.  The mayor began a major effort to gather support for a new municipal airport located on Flushing Bay in Queens.  Construction began in 1937, and amazingly New York Municipal Airport opened on December 2, 1939.  Almost from the start and in recognition of his role, newspapers called the facility LaGuardia Field.  The name was changed officially to LaGuardia Airport in 1947.  Many folks don’t realize that Mayor LaGuardia played a major role in the establishment of Idelwild Airport (today’s Kennedy International) also.  He realized that transcontinental and transoceanic flights needed longer runways and more space at an unconstructed facility.  Construction at JFK began in 1943, and it opened for commercial service in 1948.

The original domestic terminal at LGA opened where the Central Terminal (used by Southwest) sits today.  It was a masterpiece of Art Deco design, and a contemporary of Chicago Midway and Paris Le Bourget.  In the view above, the terminal is still under construction, and the site of the 1939 World’s Fair is in the far distance.

Besides the domestic terminal, LGA featured a Marine Air Terminal that was used by the Pan Am Clipper flying boats to Europe.  The terminal and hangar are in the middle foreground above, and a Boeing 314 Clipper is in the water at the terminal dock.  Delta currently uses this building for its shuttle flights, and the building features the largest mural created under the Works Progress Administration—James Brook’s Flight. 

Because of the financial support for the construction of the airport, American received the land to build what were at the time some of the largest hangars in the world.  The Delta and US Airways Terminals now occupy this area, but in the photo above we see three American DC-3s and a lot of empty hangar space.

Above we see a view of the original terminal in the late 1940s, judging by the TWA Constellations in an all metal livery.  Closest to the camera are three American Convair 240s and a DC-6.  LGA was one of the first terminals to segregate arriving and departing passengers on two levels inside the terminal.

A much lamented feature of the original terminal was the observation promenade that ran in a semi circle above the gate concourse.  We can see some future aviation geeks strolling along the promenade in the photo above.  I’m guessing this photo was probably made during 1954 or 55.  Again, American has some 240s in the bottom portion of the photo.  Next are two Capital Constellations, joined by two United DC-6s.  At the top of the photo are three TWA Martin 404s and a L749 Connie, with three Northeast aircraft just beyond that.  At this point in time, LGA had become the primary short and medium haul airport for New York, with Idelwild handling transcontinental and international flights.  A role still played by LGA and JFK today.

All of these photos were sent to me many years ago by the Port of New York and New Jersey Authority.  The Port maintained an amazing photo archive of the two New York City and Newark airports, but I read that the originals were destroyed in the Twin Tower collapse on 9/11.  Fortunately, the Port was very generous with their collection, and many, many prints are in circulation.

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