Queenswalk: Come Fly With TWA at JFK, Part 1

Flying, 1950s, early 60s, aviationqueen.blogspot 1

I was the first person in my immediate family to ever take an airplane trip. My father may have flown at some point in his military service during World War II, but he was in the Navy, so maybe not, he never said. To my knowledge, if he did, he never flew again. I may have still been the first. I was 17, and the occasion was a chaperoned trip to Italy with about 30 other high school students on a special tour for gifted students, sponsored by a local college. We took a bus down to NYC from upstate, and flew out of JFK. This was in 1972. My family was not wealthy, far from it, and back when I was a kid, it was a big deal to go to fancy airline terminals and get on planes.

My mother’s first plane trip was to attend my brother’s college graduation in South Bend, Indiana, in 1979. She was very proud of him, and because this was her first plane ride, she saved up enough to fly from LaGuardia to Chicago first class. No crowded steerage for her. She only flew one other time in her life. Today, my brother flies so often for his job that his frequent flyer miles have paid for several international trips for him and his family. But that’s what flying is today – no big deal. That was not the case in the early 1960s when what is now JFK International Airport was built. Back then, people got dressed up in order to get on a plane. Flying back then was Something Special.

New York City’s first airfield was Floyd Bennett Field, on Jamaica Bay. It opened in 1930. Although it was a state of the art airfield for its day, with a comfortable amenity laden terminal, it was so far away from Manhattan that people much preferred Newark Airport in New Jersey. Newark may have become the city’s main airport had it not been for Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. He lobbied hard for a NYC airport actually somewhere IN New York City, even ordering a flight destined for Newark to land at Floyd Bennett Field itself. He declared that his ticket said “New York” and that’s where he wanted to go, not New Jersey.

Long story short, LaGuardia got his city airport, especially after the Midtown Tunnel was built, and by 1939, domestic flights were taxiing down the runway of what was originally called the Municipal Airport. The name was changed in 1947 to LaGuardia Airport. It was soon the busiest airport in America, and even had people willing to pay ten cents a head to come out to the terminals and watch the planes take off and land. All of the major American carriers; American, United, Pan American, Eastern Airlines and Transcontinental and Western Air all flew in and out of LaGuardia.

But LaGuardia couldn’t handle too many international flights along with the domestic. There just wasn’t room to expand the present facilities. In 1941 Mayor LaGuardia announced the building of another airport, this one on the south side of Long Island, also in Queens. It would be built out near Jamaica, on marshland on the site of the old Idlewild Golf course, an old resort hotel and the small Jamaica-Sea Airport. This became the New York International Airport, generally known as Idlewild, after the old golf course. Construction began slowly, with the initial idea being to have one large terminal building, with the runways laid out from this building. But negotiations with each carrier were going slowly.

Naturally, all of the airlines wanted their runways to be the closest and most convenient to the terminal. While they were figuring that out, a small cinderblock terminal was built, as well as the control tower. By 1948 the airport opened for commercial flights, and by 1954, was the largest commercial mail and air cargo terminal in the world. Now came figuring out the passenger terminals.

The Port Authority, which was contracted to design and run the airports, had to rethink their strategies and layouts. Post war air travel grew much faster than anyone thought, and by 1954 it was clear that a central terminal would have to be over two miles long to accommodate all of the people and airlines flying in and out of Idlewild/ NY International. The idea of separate terminals for each airline seemed to be the only way to go for optimal efficiency on all fronts.

We take the configuration of airport terminals for granted now, but the architects and engineers of the early 1950s were the ones who had to figure out all of the now familiar features, from the automated baggage handling to the walkways, the placement of hangers, runways, boarding facilities, amenities and much more. Planes had been propeller driven up until this point, but wartime advances in jet technology had introduced the passenger jet plane, which meant new calculations for length of runways, size of hangers, noise, and jet blowback. This stuff was not easy.

The first passenger terminals at Idlewild were called finger terminals, and were variations on the idea of a central terminal “hand” with “fingers” extending from it. Those were the passageways to the gates, which were spaced along the fingers. Since this was New York, the city’s most prestigious architectural firms of the day were commissioned to design these terminals. First came the International Arrivals Terminal, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (1957), followed by their similar design for United Airlines (1959). Eastern Airlines was next, a month later, in a terminal designed by Chester L. Churchill.

The American Airlines terminal was designed by Kahn & Jacobs, and that opened in 1960. It was distinctive because of the huge 317 foot façade of stained glass, designed by Robert Sowers, up until 1979, the largest stained glass installation in the world. A different configuration was devised for the Pan American terminal, which also opened in 1960. It was called the “Worldport,” and was not in a finger configuration, but in what was called an “umbrella terminal.” It featured a huge roof that extended over the gates, with room for six planes. They nosed in right under the roof, sheltered from the weather, and making boarding and loading much easier.

This design was by the firm of Tippets-Abbott-McCarthy-Stratton. The Pan Am terminal was also among the first to utilize the first versions of the “Jetways,” those now-familiar accordion portable walkways that enable you to walk from the terminal to the plane without going outside on the tarmac and climbing a rolling ladder stairway. One of the great inventions of the 20th century, I’m sure. Other great airline advances were introduced at this time as well, like the electric signage announcing flights and gates, and closed circuit television for communication and security.

Trans World Airlines did not open its terminal until 1962. It was sixth in line when the negotiations for placement at the new airport were completed. TWA and Pan Am had been the only two carriers at LaGuardia that had international flights. TWA had been created before World War II, and was the result of the merger of several different smaller airlines. They were famous for their pioneering work in aviation technology and financial reorganizing, all under the guiding hand of their largest shareholder, Howard Hughes. When TWA was negotiating for a spot at Idlewild, they already lined up 65 American cities with 35 points abroad.

TWA and Pan Am were at the time, the nation’s only transatlantic carriers. The two airlines were in constant competition with each other for routes, customers and airline terminal space. TWA had been the first airline to offer tourist-class seats for its transcontinental flights, beginning in 1952. They both switched to jets for transcontinental flights, and vied for the most amenities and comforts for their customers. That included getting the best spaces at the new airport. Here at Idlewild, it looked as if Pan Am had won.

The Port Authority had decided to place TWA and Pan Am on opposite sides of the new International Arrivals Terminal, one on the right, the other on the left. TWA was not happy with their placement, they wanted to be where Pan Am was, closer to their new hangers. TWA was the only carrier operating both international and domestic service from one terminal. By the time it came to the design of this terminal, the man in charge of TWA was Ralph S. Damon. His engineering department and real estate board advised him to hire the firm of Aero Eero Saarinen & Associates, advice that Damon listened to. Since they couldn’t be where they wanted to be, they would have to dazzle in other ways.

He hired the Finnish-born architect, telling him that the vision of the TWA terminal was to be “a building that starts your flight with your first glimpse of it and increases your anticipation after you arrive.” He went on to say that the new terminal would embody “the spirit of flight, inside and out, and nothing else will do.” Both client and architect were eager to move forward, the result being the one of the most famous and iconic buildings of the mid-20th century. GMAP

Next week: We’ll look at Saarinen’s masterpiece, a rare New York City treasure that is a double landmark; protected both inside and out. It almost didn’t get saved at all. Our story continues.

(Photo: Delta flight, late 1950s or early ’60s. Aviationqueen.blogspot)

American Airlines Terminal, Idlewild Airport, 1960. Photo: airliners.net

American Airlines Terminal, Idlewild Airport, 1960. Photo: airliners.net

United Air Lines Terminal, Idlewild Airport, 1960s. Photo: Bowery Boys

United Air Lines Terminal, Idlewild Airport, 1960s. Photo: Bowery Boys

Pan Am Terminal at JFK. Photo: city-data.com

Pan Am Terminal at JFK. Photo: city-data.com

TWA Terminal at Idlewild Airport, 1964 Photo: Bowery Boys

TWA Terminal at Idlewild Airport, 1964 Photo: Bowery Boys

3 Comment

  • Keep in mind that about 25% of the American public could afford to fly 50 years ago, and that the US population was barely half of what it is today. So many less fliers paying more real money to do so = much less crowded airports.

  • Nice pun, calling the architect of the most famous of all airline terminals “Aero” Saarinen. But of course he was Eero.

    The opening of the International Arrivals building, initially the terminal for all traffic, then for all non-U.S. airlines until the B.A. terminal opened (and now the newly-expanded Terminal 4), was in fact the biggest deal, the coming of age of Idlewild and of New York as an international destination, well before the PA and TW terminals were completed. Until then, passenger facilities had been housed in cramped temporary structures little better than Quonset huts, as I remember vividly, as a kid arriving for summers home from France and being embarrassed that my country couldn’t come up with something as nice and shiny as the brand-new Orly from which I’d left 20-odd tiring hours earlier on a rumbling, bumping DC-7C.

    International Arrivals, overnight, became the new Elliis Island. Terminal 4 still has some of its architectural DNA: the open balcony in the check-in area, from which you now look down (well, until they put in the new security filters) onto the retail concourse, used to look down into the Customs area. You could stand there, spot the person you were meeting, and wave to them as they proceeded through formalities (just about everyone had their bags opened then). There was also a very fancy, sit-down, jacket-and-tie restaurant of the sort that has vanished from security-obsessed airports, where non-travelers would come for just for a meal, looking out serenely over the glamorous clamor of planes arriving and departing from and to all over the world.

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