Aviation News

October 15, 2014

La Guardia Turns 75: An In-Depth Look at the Airport’s Distinguished History

Donald Trump enters his limousine in midtown Manhattan and heads over the Queensboro Bridge. Within 20 minutes he arrives at the General Aviation Terminal at New York’s La Guardia Airport. He boards his personal jet, perhaps one of the most distinguishable 757-200s on the Earth. Moments later, N757AF lifts off from Runway 13, bound for Los Angeles.

Thousands of men and women make a similar commute, by limo, taxi or the M60 bus from 125th Street and Lexington Avenue to catch their flights, whether on American Airlines to Chicago or Frontier to Denver. Although not as lavish as Mr. Trump’s experience, it still explains why La Guardia is known as a business traveler’s airport.

In the Beginning

As a publicity stunt in 1934, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia refused to deplane after landing on a TWA flight from Pittsburgh to Newark, declaring that his ticket showed his destination as New York. TWA quickly agreed to fly the mayor and several reporters on to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. The press conference that followed conveyed to the citizens of New York that it was time for a new, modern facility closer to Manhattan than Floyd Bennett Field. Scheduled flights to Boston were operated by American Airlines from this airport a year later but discontinued after only a few days of operation.

In conjunction with the City of New York and the Federal Works Progress Administration, ground was broken in 1937 to create a 558-acre airport in Flushing, Queens on a site earlier occupied by the Gala Amusement Park (then a private airfield). A beast for its time, the project required that landfill be brought from Rikers Island and a nearby garbage dump, then laid onto a metal framework. In fact, the metallic presence still affects compass readings on aircraft departing on runway 13.

TWA DC-2 sitting at LGA in the late 1930s, with American Airlines Hangars 1, 3 and 5 in the background. (Jon Proctor)

TWA DC-2 sitting at LGA in the late 1930s, with American Airlines Hangars 1, 3 and 5 in the background. (Jon Proctor Collection)

The airport received a major vote of confidence in October 1938 when American Airlines signed a long-term lease for Hangars 1, 3 and 5 which would house the carrier’s overhaul base and its main office, until then located in Chicago. The move took place between October and December 1939.

Finally dedicated on October 15 that same year as New York City Municipal Airport, “La Guardia Field” was tacked on by a hyphen two weeks later. It would become, simply, La Guardia Airport in 1947. The airport did not open officially until December 2, 1939, when a TWA DC-3 from Chicago landed just minutes after midnight. Within a year, La Guardia was the busiest airport in the world.

One of the airport’s major features was its “skywalk” observation deck that wrapped around the terminal building’s airside. For 10 cents, customers enjoyed a sweeping view of the airport ramp area and beyond. The first year’s revenue from those turnstiles amounted to $150,000 in dimes (that’s over $2.5 million today).

Across the field, the Marine Air Terminal became the port for Pan American Airways’ elegant flying boats that transported wealthy customers to Europe. First called the Overseas Terminal, the art deco structure was designed in 1939 by William Delano and completed a year later. An overhead mural inside the terminal portrayed the history of man’s creation and involvement in flight. Titled “Flight” and created by James Brooks, it would be painted over in the 1950s due to some saying that its use of dark greens and reds gave it too much of a “communist” feel. It would later be restored in 1979-80. The large round room is also home to a large bust of Fiorello La Guardia, sitting right in the middle of its marble floor.

Pan Am’s Boeing 314 Flying Boats, seen outside the Marine Air Terminal in March of 1940. (Jon Proctor)

Pan Am’s Boeing 314 Flying Boats, seen outside the Marine Air Terminal in March of 1940. (Jon Proctor Collection)

Adjacent to the terminal, a maintenance hangar – huge for its day – was built to support Pan Am’s operation. Capable of housing multiple, double-deck Boeing 314 flying boats with their 152-foot wingspans, the facility was also used to maintain the airline’s land planes.

The first Pan American flight from La Guardia departed on March 31, 1940, the same day the Overseas Terminal was dedicated. Boeing 314 Yankee Clipper lifted off the water for Lisbon, nearly 22 hours distant. These departures from La Guardia marked the transfer of the airline’s flying boat operations from Port Washington on Long Island, and the airport became Pan Am’s Atlantic division headquarters.

Following military duty during World War II, the flying boats returned to commercial use but were soon replaced by Lockheed Constellations and Douglas DC-4s, the latter actually being converted military C-54 Skymasters. The advent of Boeing 377 Stratocruisers marked Pan Am’s gradual move to the new Idlewild Airport which was completed on February 18, 1952, when the last flight left La Guardia for Bermuda. The airline also moved its maintenance and administrative offices to the roomier Idlewild.

TWA DC-4 N45346, "The Acropolis", poses on the ramp. This is actually a “civilianized” C-54 acquired by the airline at the end of World War II. Photographed in the late 1940s, shortly after the “C” was removed from “NC” registrations. (Jon Proctor Collection)

TWA DC-4 N45346, “The Acropolis”, poses on the ramp. This is actually a “civilianized” C-54 acquired by the airline at the end of World War II. Photographed in the late 1940s, shortly after the “C” was removed from “NC” registrations. (Jon Proctor Collection)

Terminals

La Guardia Airport served as one of the main departure points for the military Air Transport Command during World War II. Aircraft maintenance was carried out while tons of military supplies passed through the airport.

(Photo from the Jon Proctor Collection)

(Photo from the Jon Proctor Collection)

Fiorello La Guardia passed away on September 20, 1947, the victim of pancreatic cancer. That same year, the Port of New York Authority (now the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – PANYNJ) leased the airport from the city on a 50-year contract.

Following the war, the Marine Air Terminal became the airport’s international departure point for land planes, but larger aircraft and a need for more space prompted other carriers to follow Pan American’s lead and move to Idlewild Airport by the end of the decade. In the early 1950s, the Douglas DC-7 and Lockheed 1049 Constellation began flying nonstop across the country but, unable to take off heavily loaded from La Guardia, they called Idlewild home instead.

However, the postwar growth in domestic air traffic more than compensated for these losses as La Guardia cemented its reputation as the city’s “close-in” airport of choice for short- to medium-haul domestic flights.

Major Renovation

By the 1960s, the main terminal building, located adjacent to the Grand Central Parkway, was outdated and bursting at the seams. A new Central Terminal Building (CTB) replaced it, and is still in use today. Dedicated on April 17, 1964, the $36 million, 1,300-foot-long structure was completed in time for the 1964-65 World’s Fair at nearby Flushing Meadows. With it came a rooftop observation deck running the full length of the terminal. The airport’s signature control tower, a circular design 150 feet high, had been completed two years earlier.

The 1964 control tower overlooking a sea of 727s on the Central Terminal ramp in June of 1972. (Photo by Art Brett)

The 1964 control tower overlooking a sea of 727s on the Central Terminal ramp in June of 1972. (Photo by Art Brett)

The end of 2006 saw the beginning of construction for a replacement control tower, in which operations began on October 11th of 2010 (though it was dedicated the January after). The new structure height has air traffic controllers standing 198 feet high in a much more noticeable structure that is on the highway side of the central terminal.

In order to accommodate the next generation of jetliners, La Guardia’s two runways were lengthened with 50-acre piers extending into the Rikers Island Channel. The $39-million project added 2,000 feet to Runway 4/22, while Runway 13/31 was lengthened 1,035 feet, bringing both runways to identical 7,000-foot lengths, sufficient to support new Boeing 727s and Douglas DC-9s.

The central terminal building saw further expansions in 1967 and again in fall 1992, when the west wing was extended by 55 feet for greeting areas, baggage belts and other operational requirements. This facility currently hosts 16 airlines in 38 rather cramped gates. Former La Guardia Airport Manager Warren Kroeppel explains the challenge at the central terminal building, which was “designed for those early model 727-100s and DC-9s and their somewhat small passenger loads. We’ve got airlines at some gates now using 757s, Airbus 320s and 737-800s. The hold room space at some of these gates is too small to effectively accommodate the larger aircraft.”

This view from the observation deck shows several of the 727s that served LaGuardia in the late 1960s. Theres even an American Airlines BAC 1-11! (Photo by Bill Armstrong)

This view from the observation deck shows several of the 727s that served LaGuardia in the late 1960s. Theres even an American Airlines BAC 1-11! (Photo by Bill Armstrong)

Although the central terminal building’s observation deck has been closed for many years, there are restaurants and shops that overlook the ramp area. Figs on the lower level food court has won multiple awards and features a comfortable ambience. Many of the shops offer street pricing that compares favorably to bargains found at any shopping mall.

However, the concession locations within the terminal create another challenge. As Kroeppel explains, the central terminal building “…was opened for the World’s Fair in 1964-65, so there were no requirements for security as there are today” concerning the post-9/11 environment. Thus, the concourses have little space for shops beyond the checkpoints. “Because of new security requirements, most people like to check in, go right through security and then shop and eat right near their gate areas.”

The Port Authority is still receiving proposals for a full replacement of the central terminal building, to be a 1.3 million square foot facility that houses 35 aircraft gates, as well as a proper parking garage, roadway system… the whole works. The project will require that flight operations not be interrupted as portions of the terminal are demolished and replaced. Part of this will be made easier with Hangars 2 and 4 on the south side of the central terminal building also set to be meeting their end as well.

Rendering of a potential future look of the CTB. (PANYNJ)

Rendering of a potential future look of the CTB. (PANYNJ)

After Eastern Airlines’ last flight in January of 1991 (which happened to be from La Guardia), the airline’s airport assets were transferred to Continental Airlines along with plans for a new, ultra-modern Terminal C. Midway through its construction, Continental abandoned plans for large operations at the airport and US Airways leased the terminal from the airline. The $250-million, 12-gate terminal opened on September 12, 1992. A 2011 slot-swap between US Airways and Delta Air Lines gave Delta a majority of Terminal C’s gates, and led the way to Delta build a hub at the airport, including a 600-foot connector bridge between Terminals C and D. Delta gave Terminal C a significant facelift with expansion and improvement to its Sky Clubs.

The southern-most structure at the airport, Delta Air Lines’ Terminal D, was built in 1983 at a cost of $96 million. Delta shared the 10-gate facility with Northwest Airlines until their 2008 merger. Though Pan Am began shuttle service from six gates at the Marine Air Terminal on October 1, 1986, Delta purchased the whole operation from Pan Am in August 1991, first operating from there to Boston-Logan and Reagan-National, later adding Chicago-O’Hare. This changed in an announcement to move the Boston-Logan portion of the operation to join its Terminal C and D hub as of November 2, 2014. The Washington D.C. and Chicago O’Hare flights will continue to operate from the marine air terminal.

Flying Operations

American Airlines 737-800 N919AN landing on runway 31 in May of 2004. (Photo by Author)

American Airlines 737-800 N919AN landing on runway 31 in May of 2004. (Photo by Author)

With the PANYNJ controlling New York’s three major airports, spreading an equal amount of the market among each facility is the common goal. A perimeter rule was put into effect for LGA in 1984 which limits scheduled flights to a distance of 1,500 miles. This replaced an informal regulation that prevented airlines from flying routes beyond 2,000 miles. With its new ruling, the city of Denver, 1,609 miles distant, was given a grandfather exemption from the limit. Delta Air Lines took the Port Authority to court in an effort to fly nonstop from LGA to its Salt Lake City hub. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but Delta lost. There is, however, an exception to the perimeter rule on Saturdays.

The perimeter rule also prevents airlines from flying to distant overseas destinations from the airport, although runway limitations are also a factor. However, LGA has customs facilities to support international destinations such as Bermuda and Nassau.

Perimeter rule aside, the 7,000-foot runways show affected aircraft performance for an aircraft heavily laden with fuel on a hot summer day, making transcontinental flying difficult even if or when it is allowed. These challenges exist even for many shorter flights arpound the eastern side of the country, affecting flight operations for types such as MD-80s during the warm months.

Constant Maintenance and Supporting Bigger Planes

Now in place for more than 30 years, the two overwater piers supporting runway extensions require constant maintenance. The Port Authority rebuilt the piers in place during the last eight years without severely affecting airport operations. Runway construction not undertaken after the midnight airport closing was usually completed on Saturday, the slowest day of the week. Even then, such work cut the airport’s runway capacity by 50%, and that always takes a toll. But that didn’t stop an Airbus Super Transporter A300-conversion from landing on Runway 4 in April of 2001 to deliver parts for an injured Air Canada A319 (The Super Transporter is designed on an oversized version of the Airbus A300).

American Trans Air 737-800 N316TZ on approach to runway 22. (Photo by Author)

American Trans Air 737-800 N316TZ on approach to runway 22. (Photo by Author)

A joint report by the U.S. DOT, the FAA, the PANYNJ and the Air Transport Association (ATA) was commissioned in 1994 to study the effects on the airfield of a Boeing 777-200 with folding wings. The report claimed that a 777 with wings that fold upward (like fighter jets on an aircraft carrier) would allow as many as seven of the type to fit at central terminal gates at any given time. The widebody’s effect on the runway piers was only briefly addressed and the folding-wing concept was not adopted. In any event, the 777 has not ever visited LGA.

The airport is equipped with an Engineered Materials Arrestor System (EMAS) at the end of Runways 22 and 13. Created especially for airports like LGA with relatively short runways and water or other surroundings, the arrestor bed’s purpose is to safely decelerate aircraft in the event of runway overrun.

The brittle cement material has already been proven successful at nearby JFK International Airport on runway 4R when a Saab 340 was successfully caught in May 1999. The system set up at LGA in 1997 was temporary to test out the effects of weather and jet blast, since runway 4 departures roll away from the bed. Its most recent replacement took place in September of 2014.

Aircraft Types: Size Matters

Air traffic at La Guardia is currently made up of a wide range of aircraft, though it is no longer a mecca for widebodies such as Lockheed L-1011 TriStars or McDonnell Douglas DC-10s, which were both designed for La Guardia-style operations (high density, short runway). The largest aircraft (by length) the airport ever received in regular service was the 767-400 from Delta Air Lines which was regularly flown to and from Atlanta. This service ended in spring 2006 when Delta reconfigured the type for international flights, and not long after Delta also retired its 767-200s and pulled the 767-300 from the ATL route.

Scenes like this were commonplace at LGA in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. (Photo by Art Brett)

Scenes like this were commonplace at LGA in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. (Photo by Art Brett)

This now makes the 757-200 the largest type at LGA, although one can also witness the occasional 767-equipment substitution from Delta, American, United and especially Air Canada because of higher demand in the days immediately following weather-related cancellations. Otherwise, aviation enthusiasts can see almost an even split between mainline aircraft types (Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 family) aircraft and regional operators such as CRJ-700s and Embraer E-Jet family.

Delta's 767-400 was a lot of airplane for LGA. (Photo by Author)

Delta’s 767-400 was a lot of airplane for LGA. (Photo by Author)

These newer, slightly larger regional aircraft are quickly replacing the smaller CRJ-200s and ERJ-135/145 types at La Guardia. This means that more passengers can fly out of the same gates utilizing the same departure slots, which is more efficient for the airport’s capacity. This is why, while the average amount of annual flights over the last decade has seen little change, the airfield recorded its most annual passengers in 2013 with 26.7 million. PANYNJ expects that number to rise to 34 million by 2030, hopefully to be made easier with the intention of reconstructing the central terminal building.

The Future

The airport is not without criticism, mostly due to the condition of the central terminal, with one example being Vice President Joe Biden saying his experiences at LGA make him feel as though he were “in a third world country.” Regardless, passengers haven’t been turning away, and the need for the airport’s presence in NYC remains cemented. Not fading away by any means, the plans for the future offer the opportunity for La Guardia Airport to have a very busy and bright future ahead of itself. Warren Kroeppel maintains, “It’s the little airport that could; we saw aviation grow up here.” After 75 years of aviation history, a very happy birthday to LGA.

Delta 767-300 departing runway 13 at sunset. (Photo by Author)

Delta 767-300 departing runway 13 at sunset. (Photo by Author)

For more old school La Guardia Airport photos, have a look at our Bill Armstrong Collection.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jan-Feb 2005 (#91) issue of Airliners Magazine.

Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has a background in online advertising and airline experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.



About the Author

Phil Derner Jr.
Phil Derner founded NYCAviation in 2003. A lifetime aviation enthusiast that grew up across the water from La Guardia Airport, Phil has aviation experience as a Loadmaster, Operations Controller and Flight Dispatcher. He owns and operates NYCAviation and performs duties as an aviation expert through writing, consulting, public speaking and media appearances. You can reach him by email or follow him on Twitter.




 
 

 

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