Dear Metropolitan Airport News readers,
The Port Authority of NY/NJ has operational responsibility for facilities spanning a 1,500 square mile area within the New York metropolitan area. These facilities include seaports, bridges, tunnels, rail, bus depots, office towers, airports as well as numerous administrative, and material support structures that are sprinkled throughout their operational area.
The broadness of this mission grew out of a seemingly innocuous statement made by the founding authorities representing both the states of New York and New Jersey in 1921; “To undertake any project concerning any transport mode as long as it would promote commerce, trade and public good.”
The Port Authority was created to deal with port and maritime transportation concerns that were part of its founding, but have grown to include other vested interests besides the maritime activities, all of which account for an impressive portfolio of facilities.
The article that follows has a prime focus on the aviation side of the Port’s responsibilities, and covers the birth and early years of the major airports. To bring our readers up to date we have identified links directing them from the past to the present.
We did not forget Stewart New York International and Teterboro Airports, and will take them up in a separate piece. While they are not in the same ballpark as far as passenger and freight volumes, their history is just as interesting.
As always, our readers are encouraged to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have other facts or personal comments or experiences with regard to the airports. Joseph alba, Editor-in-chief
“As the Port Authority celebrates its first century of public service that has seen us transform the way people and goods travel throughout the region, it’s worth pausing a moment to recognize the remarkable contributions made by our airports,” said Port Authority Aviation Director Huntley A. Lawrence. “These legendary facilities and their histories are writ large across the decades as renowned gateways to New York and the United States for visitors from throughout the country and around the globe. They have pioneered many of the aviation world’s firsts—the first paved runway, the first nighttime operations, and the first air traffic control tower, among many other accomplishments. But rather than resting on these legacies that launched in the first half of the last century, our agency has committed to a record program of investment and redevelopment that will ensure our airports provide world-class service at world-class facilities for the century to come.”
After WWI, the economy started to grow, but it had not yet completed all the adjustments in shifting from a wartime to a peacetime economy. Some factors identified as contributing to a temporary downturn in 1920 and 1921 were returning troops which created a surge in the civilian labor force and problems in absorbing the veterans, a decline in labor union strife, changes in fiscal and monetary policy, and changes in price expectations.
The Depression of the early 1920’s was a sharp deflationary recession in the United States, United Kingdom and other countries, beginning 14 months after the end of World War I. It lasted from January 1920 to July 1921.The extent of the deflation that was the primary symptom of this downturn was not only large, but large relative to the accompanying decline in real gross national product.
However, even with the deflation, economic growth in the 1920’s was impressive. Ownership of cars, new household appliances, and housing was spread widely through the population. New products and processes of producing those products drove this growth. The combination of the widening use of electricity in production and the growing adoption of the moving assembly line in manufacturing combined to bring on a continuing rise in the productivity of labor and capital. Though the average workweek in most manufacturing remained essentially constant throughout the 1920’s, in a few industries, such as railroads and coal production, it declined.
These new products and services created new markets such as the markets for radios, electric iceboxes, electric irons, fans, electric lighting, vacuum cleaners, and other laborsaving household appliances. This electricity was distributed by the growing electric utilities. The stocks of those companies helped create the stock market boom of the late twenties. RCA, one of the glamour stocks of the era, paid no dividends but its value appreciated because of expectations for the new company. Like the Internet boom of the late 1990s, the opportunities in this economy seemed to know no bounds.
The resultant growth of economy in the region, and the rise in trans-Atlantic trade piled on to the already jam-packed N.Y. harbor and port facilities. The port of N.Y. became a sea-born traffic jam with ships and barges of all sizes anxious to unload their cargo, and be on their way. Added on to the physical problems inherent in port congestion, was the rancor between the states of New York and New Jersey as boundaries, jurisdictions and rules began clogging the harbor with paperwork and lawsuits instead of freight.
New York and New Jersey Don’t Play Very Nice
Whenever we salute the founding and anniversary dates of a new company, a new association, or even a new community agency, it always begs the question, why did they come together in the first place? The answer is very simple, in the case of the advent of the Port Authority, it was because the two states could not get their act together.
The Port Authority of today was formed as a result of two completely unrelated events. The first was the rancorous relationship between the two states bordering N.Y. harbor. Through the early 1900’s, the Hudson and East Rivers were bustling with economic activity. However, in the midst of this economic activity, there was little harmony or cooperation between New York and New Jersey, both sharing jurisdiction over the harbor. There was an unending series of disputes between these states over ports, rail freight and boundaries.
At the time, rail lines terminated on the New Jersey side of the harbor, while ocean shipping was centered on Manhattan and Brooklyn. Freight had to be shipped across the Hudson River in barges. In 1916, New Jersey launched a lawsuit against New York over issues of rail freight, with the Interstate Commerce Commission issuing an order that the two states work together, subordinating their own interests to the public interest.
It was clear to both quarrelling states that the region required a single managing agency to plan and control the sea borne shipping and travel needs of people, as well as the growing need for the inbound and outbound transport of goods and services across the region and beyond.
In prior years before the signing of this inter-state compact, the Harbor Development Commission, a joint advisory board set-up in 1917, recommended that a bi-state authority be established to oversee efficient economic development of the port district. Via this earlier agreement, and subsequent disputes, The Port of New York Authority was established on April 30, 1921 through an interstate compact between the states of New Jersey and New York.
This bi-state agreement launched the first such agency in the United States, created under a provision in the Constitution of the United States permitting interstate compacts when authorized by Congress. When this compact was signed, the agency was given a broad mandate to develop and modernize the entire port.
In 1972 it was renamed the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to better reflect its status as a partnership between the two states.
This jurisdiction can also influence infrastructure development outside the periphery. For instance, the Tappan Zee Bridge – now the Mario Cuomo Bridge – is crossing the Hudson River just outside the jurisdiction of the Port Authority, but at an unsuitable site (the second widest segment of the Hudson River). This was done so that the New York State Thruway Authority would collect all the toll revenues.
To finance its activities, the PANYNJ can issue bonds, charge user fees and collect rent, which places it under the conventional landlord model. They do not receive tax payer funding nor do they impose taxes. 4
The Mayor of New York Lands In Newark
There is an airport in northern Queens named for a former mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia. This may be the only public facility in the United States that is rightfully and appropriately named for a political figure. The Mayor of New York had served in this position from 1934 to 1945 and he was singularly instrumental in the formation of two New York Airports, LaGuardia Airport and JFK International Airport.
We promised you a second reason for the development of the Port Authority’s aviation mission and the founding of LaGuardia Airport, and a few years later, the same planning and development process for building Idlewild Airport – now JFK International Airport.
The second event that triggered the entire thing was a ticket for an airplane trip from Chicago to New York City in the pocket of Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. The start of this episode is the most interesting; and is rich in New York history.
We already covered the rancor between the states and the formation of the Port Authority, and this second was not so political and not so jurisdictional. It was more the loyalty of the mayor of New York to the city he loved. It was one of those random, serendipity things that happens once in a lifetime when the aggressive and energetic New York mayor ticketed on a TWA flight from Chicago to N.Y. saw the aircraft taxiing to a gate definitely not in New York City.
I believe the former editor of Portfolio, The Port Authority’s internal blog, Roz Hamlett’s description of the event captures it better than I can and I quote; “The initiative to develop the airport for commercial flights began with an outburst by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (in office from 1934 to 1945) upon the arrival of his TWA flight at Newark Airport – the only commercial airport serving the New York City region at the time – as his ticket said “New York”. He demanded to be taken to New York and repeated again to the Captain that his ticket damn well said New York and he refused to leave his seat and ordered the plane to be flown to Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field.
I’m sure the captain piloting this TWA flight contacted his management before ferrying the Mayor to Brooklyn’s own Floyd Bennet field. With the team of reporters “conveniently” already aboard the airplane, the press conference that followed almost immediately made clear that the time had come for a new, modern facility closer to Manhattan.
It is true, of course, that Fiorello LaGuardia was in any case one of commercial aviation’s more indefatigable champions and a great friend and supporter of the various interests that sought to advance it in ever bigger and bolder modern America. Still, it is recorded he often grumbled that somehow it just wasn’t right for New Yorkers to be stuck with an airport that was basically in another state altogether.
And that was the second event that occurred during the heated relationships between New York and New Jersey. This confrontation sparked the newly appointed Port Authority to work in conjunction with both states, and city officials to build a New York City airport. This was not a governmental agency being an administrator, this was a governmental agency being a co-founder of a key element in the growth of New York City. In his usual magnanimous manner, the mayor met often with Port Authority officials to ensure they were both on the same page relative to the completion of both airports.
This marked the creation of the last leg of the Port Authority’s portfolio; air services in the New York region. This translated into providing a broad array of facilities, as well and support programs in a safe and well managed environment for both passenger and freight air traffic.
The First Steps and Planning for New York City’s First Commercial Airport
According to many New Yorkers in the know, the successful completion of the George Washington Bridge gave the Port Authority credibility. The project came in on time and on budget and was a great launching point in solidifying their reputation as a transport agency. This vote of confidence paved the way for their site selection and development of LaGuardia, the first New York City commercial airport, subsequently followed by Idlewild.
Is it permissible to say, the construction of a bridge set the stage for the development of two New York airports?
Many of Metropolitan Airport News readers may have never heard of North Beach and Holmes airports in northern Queens. Both of these private airports were close to, or on the current land mass that was to be LaGuardia Airport. Both were private airports located in northern Queens almost contiguous to each other.
North Beach had been developed in the 1880’s by piano manufacturer William Steinway, and for some few years it had been a popular shore resort and amusement park. By the end of the 1920’s, the Curtiss-Wright Corp. had turned it into a private airfield. North Beach Airport was 20 minutes from the city; sport fliers used it regularly; the Police Department’s Aviation Unit had hangers there as was the New York Daily News’ photo plane. But it certainly couldn’t handle commercial airliners. Mayor LaGuardia decided he was personally going to fix that.
In August 1937, the city bought North Beach Airport from Curtiss-Wright for $1.3 million and immediately began to more than quintuple its 105 acres with 17 million cubic yards of landfill scooped up from Rikers Island’s mountains of cinder, ash and refuse. More than 20,000 relief workers from the Federal Works Progress Administration worked around the clock for two years. The mayor was determined to finish his pride-and-joy airport by the time the World’s Fair opened April 30,1939.
American Airlines accepted LaGuardia’s offer to start a trial program of scheduled flights to Floyd Bennett, although the program failed after several months because Newark’s airport was closer to Manhattan. LaGuardia went as far as to offer police escorts to airport limousines in an attempt to get American Airlines to continue operating the trial program.
During the Floyd Bennett experiment, LaGuardia and American executives began an alternative plan to build a new airport in Queens, where it could take advantage of the new Queens–Midtown Tunnel to Manhattan.
On a sparkling Sunday, the 15th of October, 1939, the mayor “with pardonable pride,” he beamed dedicated his crown jewel before more than a quarter-million New Yorkers. The TWA, American, United and Canadian Colonial lines showed off their gleaming silver ships on the field’s six runways; 75 military planes stunted high overhead; the mighty Pan American Atlantic Clipper rode the bay off the Marine Terminal, symbolizing the trans-oceanic service soon to come.
As LaGuardia spoke, a young woman paraded before him with a large sign reading “NEWARK IS STILL THE WORLD’S GREATEST AIRPORT.” Cops hustled her away and told her to go home. 1
Because of American’s pivotal role in the development of the airport, LaGuardia gave the airline extra real estate during the airport’s first year of operation, including four hangars, which was an unprecedented amount of space at the time. American opened its first Admirals Club (and the first private airline club in the world) at the airport in 1939.
Sometimes a so-called great start is not a start at all when you discover what you selected and built as New York’s airport was not suitable for international traffic. By that time, it was plain that LaGuardia Field wasn’t big enough anyway, and the idea of flying boats – the Clipper – automatically removed most major cities from your routes; that is not a pragmatic site for a New York airport. So, the mayor began planning the even larger Idlewild Airport.
The Opening of LaGuardia Airport and the Beginning of Idlewild
Officials were surprised at the uproarious crowd that came to the opening ceremonies at what was then called, New York Municipal Airport. The work had been completed and the airport officially dedicated on October 15, 1939, as the New York Municipal Airport, and opened for business on December 2nd of that year.
It cost New York City $23 million to turn the tiny North Beach Airport into a 550-acre modern facility. Not everyone was as enthusiastic as LaGuardia, a few regarded it as a $40 million boondoggle. But the public was fascinated by the very idea of air travel, and thousands traveled to the airport, paid the dime fee, and watched the airliners take off and land. This paved the way for public acceptance of the need for a larger airport, one more suitable for the expected coast to coast flights as well as international traffic.
The United States was now looked upon as the senior partner in the free world and the nation that tipped the balance when fascism was threatening Europe and other continents. In addition, there were expectations that the largest city in the United States at that time would house an airport complimentary to its size and reputation.
The airport was soon a financial success. A smaller airport in nearby Jackson Heights, Holmes Airport, was unable to prevent the expansion of the larger airport and closed in 1940. In 1947, New York Municipal Airport became LaGuardia Airport, a fitting honor for the man who led the transition, when the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey signed a lease with the City of New York.
Through the years and up to 2016, LaGuardia Airport has been improved, in an incremental manner. This methodology was to patch the pot holes and make improvements on an item-by-item basis. However, this mode of operation did not change the view of many that the airport was out of date.
It was not until the Port Authority, along with Governor Andrew Cuomo, together launched a plan to tear down the old and build a new airport for the 21st century utilizing a Public Private Partnership. Patrick Foye, executive director of the Port Authority, said, “It’s got a quaint, nostalgic but unacceptable kind of 1940s, 1950s feel that’s just not acceptable.”
The LaGuardia airport infrastructure work that broke ground in 2016 is very nearly completed. There are a few projects still in the works and the last major effort is to construct an air-train capability connecting the public system to the airport. This is still in its early phases. There is also an idea being examined to utilize a hydra-foil ferry service from Long Island’s eastern reaches as well as southern shoreline cities in Connecticut. 2
From A Golf Course to An Airport, the Crown Jewel, JFK International Airport
Before Idlewild was the name of an airport, it was the name of a golf course; possibly the flattest golf course on the face of the earth. Even before the golf course there was a park.
As long ago as 1899, the New York Times noted that about 25 miles from Manhattan, there was a park with a grove and the usual equipment of dancing pavilions, saloon, lunch house, playground, shooting gallery and pier. It was known as Idlewild, a recreation spot for residents of Long Island and/or the wealthy, such as William Vanderbilt, who had summer houses in the area. But it wouldn’t be a recreation center for long—development of a new N.Y. airport was soon to follow.
The facility opened in 1948 as New York International Airport and was commonly known as Idlewild Airport. Following President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the airport was renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport as a tribute to the 35th President.
By the official record, work was begun on the airport when in December 1941, title to the property had been conveyed to the city. The City Council had allocated $750,000 for payment to the 200 or so property owners on the land, all of whom had been notified to leave. “The work of clearing the property,” said the presiding justice in the case, “will be done by Park Commissioner [Robert] Moses. He will be in there with shovels and excavators, and you know he does things fast. You will have from two to four weeks to move.” (Just what you might think from Moses.)
The federal government had offered to pay $875,000 for landfill and runway construction. The whole thing was expected to cost $10 million, but by the end of 1945, it was already called a $200 million airport, and money continued to be spent on it. Traffic skyrocketed as well—the Civil Aeronautics Board forecast 600,000 travelers per year, and in 1973, a reported 35 million were expected within the decade. (To bring these figures up to date, 62.6 million passengers passed through its JFK Airports portals in 2019, according to the PANYNJ statistics).
Construction had begun in 1942. Plans called for the airport to be turned over to the armed forces when it was finished and after the war to be used for air freight, air express and long-distance planes—no mention of commercial passenger flights. The mayor said it would be the largest and best-equipped airport in the world and blithely predicted: “weekends abroad by plane.” By August 1945, twelve airlines had signed leases, expecting the airport to open for preliminary operation in September.
By August 1946, the airport was still unfinished. The mayor asked the Board of Estimate to consider how far to go with Idlewild development, estimating that $50 million more would be needed and another $20 million for hangars. The opening date was postponed until spring, then summer.
On July 1, 1948, it opened. There was no ceremony that day, but at the end of July the “official” opening of Idlewild was celebrated with a flyover of the greatest number of bombers.
It was the largest group of military aircraft that was ever assembled in peacetime—all set to rendezvous over the airport in the afternoon. It was accompanied by $10 million dollars-worth of military exhibits on the ground and highlighted by the appearance and speeches of both President Harry S. Truman and Governor Thomas Dewey, rivals who appeared on the dais for the first time together.
From a design point of view, this airport was precedent-setting. Airlines were encouraged to build their own terminals, which resulted in some of the most distinctive architecture ever seen—the saucers atop the terminal for Northwest, Northeast and Braniff, lifting off for a space odyssey. Or the flying saucer above the Pan Am terminal.
The neighbors found the whole airport thing pretty exciting. In the 1950s, it’s said that young couples from Ozone Park, Queens, used to dress up and go to the airport, sit in the bar and watch planes take off and land. (The new TWA Hotel has a 10,000-square-foot observation deck allowing visitors to do exactly the same thing all these years later.)
In July of 1972, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey signed a 50-year lease to operate and develop the airport, promising a portion of a $200 million general airport investment by the end of its 50-year lease when ownership would revert to the city. One of the rights of Port Authority ownership apparently included that of naming, and so the airport became the “New York International Airport at Idlewild.”
The Civil Aeronautics Board didn’t like it. “New York Airport” and “Newark Airport” were too similar in sound, and radioed directions could easily be confused, the CAB said, especially because the two airports were near each other. Nevertheless, the long name continued to be the official one. But most people called it “Idlewild” so this became official and remained until December 1963.
On December 4th 1963, two weeks after the assignation of President John F. Kennedy and after consulting with the Kennedy family, Mayor Robert Wagner said he would change the formal name of the New York International Airport at Idlewild to John F. Kennedy International Airport.
In 2017, JFK International followed the example of the LaGuardia Airport renaissance. Governor Cuomo unveiled the plans for a New JFK Airport.
In February 2021, NYC Mayor DeBlasio said he would sign an executive order extending the authority’s lease from 2050 to 2060, bypassing the cumbersome land review process in an effort to allow PANYNJ to recover from record downturns caused by the corona virus pandemic. This lease extension allows for a restructuring of projects aimed at redeveloping JFK International Airport with construction projects that were started before the pandemic.
The Port Authority Expands to New Jersey’s Newark Airport
On October 8th, 2021, Newark Liberty International Airport will celebrate its 93rd birthday. The airport was the first in the New York City metropolitan area, predating LaGuardia Airport by 11 years. Newark’s airport was the first airport in the country, reputedly the first in the world, to have a paved runway and the second in the world to have a terminal building (the Administration Building); and the first air traffic control center.
Newark Airport is located 3 miles south of Downtown Newark, and 9 miles west-southwest of the borough of Manhattan. It is one of three major airports serving the New York metropolitan area.
The airport was constructed on the southernmost portion of the Meadowlands – formerly a damp marshy site that required more than 1.5 million cubic feet of dry fill – which included 7000 Christmas trees and 200 metal safes to prepare it for paving and the building of an airfield.
Newark Airport opened on October 1, 1928, on 68 acres of reclaimed land along the Passaic River, the first major airport serving passengers in the New York metro area. The Art Deco style Newark Metropolitan Airport Administration Building, adorned with murals by Arshile Gorky, was built in 1934 and dedicated by Amelia Earhart in 1935. It served as the terminal until the opening of the North Terminal in 1953. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and is now a museum and Port Authority Admin Offices and Police headquarters.
Newark was the busiest commercial airport in the world until LaGuardia Airport opened in December 1939; the March 1939 Official Aviation Guide shows 61 weekday departures on five airlines, but by mid-1940 passenger airlines had all left Newark.
During World War II the field was closed to commercial aviation while it was taken over by the United States Army for logistics operations. In 1945 captured German aircraft brought from Europe on HMS Reaper for evaluation under Operation Lusty were off-loaded at Newark AAF and then flown or shipped to Freeman Field, Indiana or Naval Air Station Patuxent River, Maryland.
The airlines returned to Newark in February 1946. In 1948, the city of Newark leased the airport to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. As part of the deal, the Port Authority took operational control of the airport and began investing heavily in capital improvements, including new hangars, a new terminal and runways.
Many improvements over the years including a recent redevelopment brings Newark Liberty International Airport into a modern example of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s portfolio.
The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey via its Portfolio blog has an excellent portrayal of the airport by former PANYNJ Editor, Roz Hamlett3
We congratulate the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for an amazing 100 years steeped deep in innovation and progress and we look forward to what the future holds.
Special thanks to the NY Historical Society for their assistance on events, dates and facts including some of the personal happenings, and to the Conference Board for the content related to economics in the 1920’s.
Also, thanks to the Newark Historical Association for similar information relative to the work at Newark Airport.
The Port Authority’s Portfolio blog is always well researched and well written and also was a gut check when certain facts did not meld with the content.
The Heller Airport in Bellville is a mystery that I could not solve. It is mentioned in a few instances that it was the first airport in Newark located on the boundary of Newark and Bellville in one account, but I could not find reference to it. There was a man Heller who owned businesses in Newark, and had an air mail runway on one of his properties. Could that be the Heller Airport?
The Metropolitan Airport News has done many articles on old and abandoned airports on Long Island and New York City. It so happens that my own work was a good research source in looking at North Beach and Holmes Airports. North Beach was once called Glen Curtiss Airport. You can find these articles on our website’s archives at www.metroairportnews.com ■
- Jay Maeder, NY Daily News, August 14, 2017
- References available at Wikipedia
- PANYNJ Portfolio
- A Bridge Over Troubled Waters
Fun Facts and Links to More Information About Our Airports
- An interesting aside about airport plane watchers written by Penelope Bareau.
- YouTube video on the founding and naming of Idlewild airport.
- The JFK Lufthansa heist made famous in the movie Goodfellas.
- Information about current facilities and terminals can be found online.
- History of JFK Airport can be found here.
- New York Heritage Digital Collection.
- The Cradle of Aviation Museum