The History Of New York’s LaGuardia Airport

LaGuardia Airport History

Photo: Eric Salard [CC BY-SA (]

Located in Queens, New York, LaGuardia Airport is the third most used airport in New York and ranks among the top 25 busiest airports in the world. It covers over 650 acres and serves over 25 million passengers per year on average. The airport has been in operation for over 80 years.

The ground that LaGuardia Airport stands on was first used for the Gala Amusement Park. The park was run by the Steinway family, founders of the world-renowned Steinway and Sons piano company. The amusement park was torn down in 1929 and the space was converted into an airfield. The private airport was originally named the Glenn H. Curtiss Airport to honor the American aviation pioneer. It was renamed the North Beach Airport in 1935.

Shortly after that, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia spearheaded the idea to turn the North Beach Airport into an airport for commercial flights. After flying into Newark Commercial Airport, which was the only commercial airport that served the area at the time, the mayor convinced the plane’s pilot to then fly him to Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field. There, La Guardia made his first public appeal at a hastily arranged press conference.

Floyd Bennett Field was the mayor’s first choice, but it was soon passed over due to the newly constructed Queens-Midtown tunnel. North Beach Airport became the city government’s primary focus for a new commercial airfield. Over $20 million was invested in the project. The New York Municipal Airport-LaGuardia Field was dedicated on October 15, 1939 and officially opened for business soon after on December 2.

The 550 acre project was impressive, but had its fair share of critics. However, it soon captured the public’s attention. Friends and families flocked to the airport on weekends just to watch planes take off and arrive from the skyway observation deck. The airport made over $900,000 annually from entrance fees, parking, concessions and other non travel-related revenue just two years afer it opened. LaGuardia’s financial success spelled certain doom for smaller nearby airports who couldn’t compete.

The airport was initially known as both LaGuardia Field and New York Municipal Airport until the city worked out a lease to switch to control by the Port of New York Authority. The airfield was officially named LaGuardia Airport after the agreement was finalized in June 1947, three months before Fiorello La Guardia passed away from pancreatic cancer.

LaGuardia’s four runways eventually became so busy that the Port Authority (and later the Federal Aviation Administration) had to limit flights. Transatlantic flights were transferred to nearby Idlewild Airport (now known as the John F, Kennedy International Airport) in 1951. The Port Authority enacted a perimeter rule in 1984 that limited nonstop flights into and out of LaGuardia to destinations that were 1500 miles or less from the airport. Denver was the only exception to the rule. A few years later, the Port Authority worked to integrate the nearby Newark and JFK airports to local rail lines to create more competition. The FAA stepped in and limited the types of aircraft and number of flights LaGuardia could have.

Despite these restrictions, traffic at LaGuardia continued to grow. As the new century began, it wasn’t uncommon for passengers to experience delays due to overcrowding of over an hour or more. In 2001, Congress passed legislation aimed at eliminating the FAA’s federal traffic limits at LaGuardia by 2007. Air travel demand decreased after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which helped to alleviate the airport’s travel delay problems.

Renovation and reconstruction began at the airport in 2006. The air traffic control tower designed by American architect Wallace Harrison in 1962 was replaced with a more modern facility in October 2010. Port Authority Director Christopher Ward announced plans in April 2010 to demolish and reconstruct LaGuardia’s central terminal. Proposals were accepted until the end of 2012, and were reviewed by Port Authority officials until Governor Andrew Cuomo announced in January 2014 that the construction project would be overseen by the state instead of the initial public/private partnership that had been planned.

In July 2015, Governor Cuomo introduced a $4 billion plan for LaGuardia’s renovations. All existing terminals would be rebuilt and connected with terminal bridges. The plan meant that the existing airport would essentially be torn down and rebuilt. The first phase of construction began in March 2016, and the entire project is scheduled to be completed in 2021. Total costs for the project are estimated to be around $4 to $5 billion.

There are currently four terminals at LaGuardia Airport:

Terminal A, also known as the Marine Air Terminal, was created to handle overseas flights and Pan Am’s fleet of flying boats. The only airline currently using this terminal is Jet Blue. Terminal A is also used by general commercial aircraft and is home to the beloved mural Flight, which is one of the largest works of art still remaining from the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project from the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Terminal B, or the Central Terminal Building, was built in 1964. It currently serves Air Canada, United, American Airlines and Southwest..The final gates in the terminal’s eastern concourse are scheduled to open in 2020, and the western concourse should be completed in 2021.

Terminal C opened in 1992. It currently serves Frontier, Spirit Airlines, Delta, Delta Connection and WestJet. The terminal handles about half of all of LaGuardia’s regional airline traffic.

Terminal D was designed in 1983 by William Nicholas Boduva & Associates Architects in 1983. This terminal is currently used by Delta and Delta Connection. A 600 foot walkway connects Terminal D with Terminal C.

Even though LaGuardia isn’t the biggest airport in the New York area anymore, it’s still one of the busiest airports on the East Coast. Flights from over a dozen different air carriers take off and depart daily to many continental locations, as well as Bermuda, the Bahamas and Aruba. It’s a New York icon that has endured changes in travel habits and economic conditions for over 75 years.





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