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The Future Is Now – La Guardia Airport, New York

Kevan James

October 12, 2021

There are many tall tales surrounding aviation, some true, some not. One that does have its roots in truth concerns Fiorello La Guardia, then soon to be Mayor of New York City. In the mid-1930s, New York City had an airport, Floyd Bennett Field, located on the southern edge of Jamaica Bay. At the time however, and by the standards of the day, it was thought of as being too far from Manhattan and as air mail services formed the backbone of air transport, airlines used Newark Airport (EWK) as it was closer to the centre of New York.

Image - Curt Littlejohn

Newark however, is not in New York, state or city. It’s in New Jersey, across the River Hudson from Manhattan. The river forms the boundary between the State of New Jersey and the State of New York and another of those tall tales concerns the rivalry between the two states, with, reputedly at least, small-arms fire erupting between the two state police services when frequent disputes arose.

The divergence of opinion between the two was not settled until the formation of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) to operate the harbours, docks, bridges and tunnels linking them (and in later years, the airports also). Consequently, when Fiorello La Guardia arrived at Newark Airport, he demanded to flown to New York as that was the destination on his flight ticket.

Location of the three commercial airports serving New York, plus Floyd Bennett Field

Google Maps

Discussions then raged back and forth as to the suitability of Floyd Bennett Field since airlines generally refused to use it and, having become Mayor, La Guardia then spearheaded the construction of a new airport to serve New York, on the site of what was once the Gala Amusement Park. The park was run by the Steinway family, founders of the world-renowned Steinway and Sons piano company, and demolished in 1929. The site was then converted into a private airfield, originally named the Glenn H. Curtiss Airport after the American aviation pioneer. It was renamed the North Beach Airport in 1935.

Floyd Bennett Field in 1948. In the distance Idlewild International Airport can be seen under construction

Captain Lewis R. Devoe, USNR

Floyd Bennett Field had been Mayor La Guardia’s first choice, but the newly constructed Queens-Midtown tunnel made North Beach Airport even easier to reach from Manhattan and it 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-La Guardia Field was dedicated on October 15, 1939 and officially opened for business on December 2.

Initially known by both names, the city authorities then concluded a lease giving control of the airport to the Port of New York Authority. It was officially named La Guardia Airport (LGA) after the agreement was finalised in June 1947, three months before Fiorello La Guardia passed away from pancreatic cancer.

The Marine Air Terminal at La Guardia

Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey.

In the short time since opening however, and despite the onset of World War II, LGA rapidly became extraordinarily busy. Airlines, aircraft, passengers and people just watching, flocked to it with the observation decks atop the terminal just as crowded as the building beneath. It was obvious that the airport would not be able to handle traffic expectations so Mayor La Guardia initiated a plan for a giant new airport to handle international traffic (as well as the burgeoning domestic routes) located on the other side of Jamaica Bay from Floyd Bennett Field. Ground distance from Manhattan was no longer a consideration as Idlewild International Airport became a reality - a very expensive reality and the same monetary restraints applied to the Municipal airport. Idlewild of course is now known as John F Kennedy International Airport, or just JFK for short.

The Marine Air Terminal in 1940

Hans Groenhoff (Smithsonian Institution)

A month before the end of WWII, La Guardia invited seventeen of his fellow mayors from around the USA to an observation tower in the centre of what was to become JFK. He showed his visitors a plan of the airport, even as it was being built around them, saying,

“The greatest airport in the world is rising from the meadows at Idlewild in New York City. It will cost $71 million…The airport will bring millions of dollars monthly in commerce, business and traffic to the City of New York…The airport is a costly undertaking, yet it will be one of the best investments the city has ever made. It will pay its way.”

Fiorello La Guardia was, in some ways, quite visionary but finances were not his strong point. Those he left to others. When he departed mayoral office not long afterwards, he left a city submerged in debt. Ten miles north of Idlewild, the mayor’s old grand dream, the airport that bears his name, was also in danger of drowning – almost literally. As well as bursting at the seams from the immediate post-war travel boom, LGA was sinking into Flushing Bay. Yet another of those tall tales concerns a lamppost disappearing into the ground as people watched. The money to shore up LGA and build JFK had to come from a city deep in debt.

The PANYNJ was, at the time, a public and private corporation that could raise money (and spend it) without necessarily accounting, publicly at least, for what it did. La Guardia’s successor as mayor William O’Dwyer, turned the airports over to it, thus getting what was turning out to be hideously expensive projects (and seen by some as Fiorello La Guardia’s vanity) off the city’s books.

Whether the means of doing so were entirely without question is subjective but with the Port Authority now responsible for all three of New York’s airports, fees for airlines went up, money-raising bonds issued, and new terminals built at Newark and La Guardia, along with runway and taxiway improvements.

Above - American Airlines Douglas DC-6 in 1962

Jon Proctor

Below - American's British-built BAC 1-11 400s were frequent visitors to LGA

Steve Williams

The Marine Terminal at LGA, used by Pan American for its seaplane services across the Atlantic remained and across the runway, the original terminal for everybody else was replaced by a gently curving structure seven times bigger than its predecessor. Flanked by hangars it fitted a little awkwardly in between them and opened in 1964. The airport’s control tower also looked a little odd, midway along the pier serving American Airlines. In 1978, Eastern Airlines acquired the Airbus A300 in a breakthrough deal for the European consortium and the PANYNJ agreed to strengthen the runways to handle the aircraft.

Otherwise the building stopped - at LGA, JFK and Newark. Only the airlines responsible for their own terminals extended their facilities to handle wide bodied aircraft, the Boeing 747, the L1011 TriStar and the Douglas DC-10 (as well as the A300s of Eastern).

Above and below - LGA's 1964-built terminal was never designed for aircraft as big as the Boeing 727 and even later versions of the McDonnell Douglas DC-9 family could be a tight fit

Jon Proctor

Over time, patchwork additions here and there gave the New York airports a well-worn look, with overcrowding and delays common. Yet somehow they functioned, millions flew through them - a testimony to those who worked for all three and the airlines that operated from them. Plans for redevelopment came and went, with cost being the reason for none of the proposals getting beyond the smart brochure stage.

Central Terminal Map in 1977

Erik Griswold

Needs however, almost always overcome everything else and with the commencement of redevelopment at JFK and EWK, LGA’s turn finally came. In 2015 New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and Joe Biden, then US Vice-President, announced a $4 billion construction project for LGA. Biden had described LGA as “outdated, overcrowded and poorly designed,” and compared it to something a traveller might find in a third world country.

LGA in 2014

Patrick Handrigan

The La Guardia project broke ground in 2016 and is now not far from completion. The old control tower is gone and so is the terminal that gave rise to so much ire. The building was meant for small jets and propeller aircraft, not the bigger jets like the Boeing 727, or for that matter, the A300, DC-10 or L1011 – overcrowding was not limited to people inside but also aircraft on the ramps. Space was always at a premium at the ‘old’ LGA.

Today however, is a different story; a big new central terminal has risen in place of the old, with the gates around satellites. Reached by passengers via overhead bridges, these are high enough for aircraft to taxi underneath. Only three other airports have such bridges; Denver, some 1,620 miles to the west, across the Atlantic at London’s Gatwick Airport and the newest, at Hong Kong’s Chep Lap Kok, connecting the North Satellite Concourse with the main terminal. Road approaches at LGA are also being improved along with car parks and other facilities for both passengers and airlines.

Above and below -Terminal B today

Curt Littlejohn

Regular flier Curt Littlejohn said:

“The landside area of arranged in a manner favoured by several newer airports, Hong Kong, Toronto for example, and Terminal B is a completely new build, from top to bottom. So, it’s far more than a renovation. It feels like a new airport in a new city. The check-in counters are similar to the Tom Bradley terminal at LAX. It is a clean and open design with interesting use of striking art and visual pieces.

The security screening area is quieter and calmer than I expected. (Think of moving from a huge ballroom into a quiet study or library). They use the automated bin conveyors seen in many airports today. People move through this process very quickly. The bags move a little slower. I waited for about 5 minutes for my bags to go through the screening. This terminal made effective use of the TSA pre-process®, but does not have the Clear® option, which is a miss.

After clearing security, you ascend approximately 3 stories on escalators to the shopping & dining area which overlooks the airport. There are only 2 escalators for the entire terminal. So if either of those fail, it would be very disruptive. A brief and winding walk through some shops leads you to the two bridges that go to the gates.

The shopping & dining area is centred around an interactive fountain that pours from the ceiling. Onto it are projections of New York images that move in time to the music playing in the background. It is very entertaining and there were dozens of people who stopped to record video of it in action.

The bridges that lead to the gates span about 400 ft., and aircraft taxi directly underneath them. Once you reach the airside terminals, you descend two flights of escalators into the gate area that has yet more shops and dining options.

Overall the architects have done an excellent job packing a lot of functionality and interest into the small amount of space that this airport provides.

Access to the terminals from the Grand Central Parkway is tricky because much of the airport is still under construction. Drivers will appear to be going in circles as that is necessary to move from one level to another or from one terminal to another. The locals say that this will be vastly streamlined when the entire project is complete.

I used to avoid this airport at all costs, sometimes double-connecting to go into JFK instead. But I found this new terminal to be very convenient and comfortable and will happily use it again.”

Video: Taxiing for take-off

Curt Littlejohn

Construction on Terminal C (Delta) will begin in the near future so there is still some way to go but the vision for a new La Guardia is entering the final stages of completion. Combined with existing redevelopment at JFK and EWK, plus even further rebuilding at both, New York will soon have a trio of world-class airports to fly from and are ideally placed to aid air travel’s recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

It may have taken several decades but the vision of Fiorello La Guardia at the airport that bears his name is almost a reality.

© Kevan James, 2021.

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