Observation Deck

Seventy-Five Years Old and Still Counting

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History of La Guardia Airport at 75 years of age

Recently, friend and reader Bob Martens reminded me of the fact that New York City’s La Guardia Airport celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary on October 15, 2014, and pointed out Phil Derner’s fine article “La Guardia Turns 75: An In-Depth Look at the Airport’s Distinguished History” on NYC Aviation’s website. The article can be found here:

http://www.nycaviation.com/2014/10/la-guardia-airport-celebrates-75-year...

For those readers not familiar with the colorful history of LGA, a full reading of the article is recommended highly. A few highlights, to provide context are appropriate, however.

Hard to believe today, but as of 1934, there was not scheduled airline service to New York City proper. Flying to New York involved the use of the airport at Newark, New Jersey, and accessing “The City” via surface transport. In a famous incident, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia insisted on his flight continuing from Newark to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn, since he had a ticket that specified transportation to “New York”.

Construction began in 1937 in the Flushing area of the Borough of Queens for what is now LGA. As noted above, the new facility was dedicated in October 1939, was titled the New York City Municipal Airport, initially. Interestingly, it offered both domestic and international services, with the latter being provided via flying boats using the aptly-named Marine Air Terminal, which would become home to the land-based Pan Am Shuttle (later operated by Delta) many years in the future.

LGA’s time in the spotlight as an international point of arrival and departure faded relatively quickly following World War II, for two principal reasons, however. First, flying boats were supplanted by landplanes with better range capabilities, and following the opening of Idlewild Airport on Jamaica Bay in the southern reaches of Queens, international flights quickly decamped to the airport that would later become known simply as “JFK”.

La Guardia, however, prospered considerably during the postwar period as the epicenter for New York City’s short/medium-haul domestic air services, accompanied by trips to and from cities in eastern Canada, which did not require international inspection facilities for travelers due to the novel installation of “pre-clearance” procedures in Canada.

Postcards from this era (the article on the website includes a black-and-white example) typically show a plethora of propeller-driven aircraft on the ramp to the north of the airport’s sole terminal building. While the range of the DC-7 and later Constellation aircraft couldn’t be used out of LGA due to the relatively short length of the airport’s runways, the full gamut of piston-era equipment was typically on view, albeit on shorter-haul segments.

Turboprops, principally in the form of the British-built Viscount, and later the Lockheed Electra, also became frequent LGA visitors. However, as the jet age progressed in the early 1960s, La Guardia risked becoming redundant, or to use a British-English phrase, “falling into disuse”, since it could not accommodate the performance needs of the early four-engine jets. In 1964, the Boeing 727 came to the rescue, however, since it was designed specifically to use shorter runways than its longer-haul predecessors; modest runway extensions at LGA helped, also.

In conjunction with this type’s arrival, a new “Central Terminal Building” was opened in the same year, dedicated on April 17. This incorporated four gate piers, each being dominated by one of the U.S. “Big Four” carriers: from west to east, American, United, TWA and Eastern. Students of airline history will note that only two of these airlines exist today, and also that the carrier which now dominates operations at LGA, Delta, was not even serving the airport then, and wouldn’t, until 1968. The 1980s and 1990s saw the addition of Terminals C and D, both of which have now been linked to facilitate Delta’s connecting operations.

More recently, however, the Central Terminal Building has been showing its age; in a fairly extreme notice, as reported in the New York Times, U.S. Vice President Joseph R. Biden stated that “…if he blindfolded someone and took him to La Guardia, the person would think he was in ‘some third world country’ ‘’. Not to be outdone on this score, the Times’ competitor, the New York Post, rounded up a worker at LGA who “…said his hometown airport – in the bomb-blasted city of Karachi – sure beats La Guardia”.

A replacement is in the planning stages, an understandable need for an entity designed for a very different airline industry, and which has been heavily utilized for fifty years. Unfortunately, apropos of this blog’s name, it probably will not contain a replacement for the wonderful, but now long-gone observation deck that used to grace the CTB’s north side. A shame, but to be expected in today’s air transport world.

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