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New York's LaGuardia Airport To Get Long Overdue Redesign


It was a big day in 1939 when the New York Municipal Airport opened - worthy of a spot in an RKO Pathe newsreel.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Here for the formal opening is Mayor LaGuardia. And he still has time for autograph-hunting kids no matter how busy he is dedicating.

BLOCK: In the early 50s, it became simply LaGuardia Airport. And people have called it many other things in the decades since - worst airport in the country, for one. Well, now LaGuardia is getting a major redesign. The terminals will be torn down and rebuilt. Aviation historian Janet Bednarek joins me now. She's a professor of history at the University of Dayton. And Professor Bednarek, the airport that bears the name of former Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia owes its existence to him, right? What's the story?

JANET BEDNAREK: Well, right before LaGuardia became mayor, he and his wife were vacationing in Florida. And he was flying back to the city to take office. And his airline flew into Newark, New Jersey. That's where the airlines flew in those days. In the 1930s, basically, the post office determined where airlines flew because they flew where the post office wanted to carry the mail. And the post office had made the decision that it would carry mail to New York to an airport that had been built in Newark, New Jersey. Well, LaGuardia refused to get off the plane because he wasn't in New York.

BLOCK: (Laughter).

BEDNAREK: And he kept insisting that he wouldn't get off the plane until they flew him to New York. So the airline eventually flew him to Floyd Bennett Field which, at that time, was New York's Municipal Airport. But airlines refused to move their operations from Newark to Floyd Bennett, so LaGuardia made it a big point of building an airport that the airlines would use in New York City during his term as mayor.

BLOCK: And when that airport opened in 1939, the idea was that this would be the model for all American airports to come. Did it end up being that way?

BEDNAREK: Yes and no. Part of the problem was it's 1939 and, of course, the war comes right afterwards. So there wasn't a lot of airport building that happened immediately after LaGuardia opened. But when it did open in 1939, it gave people a notion of what a modern airport ought to look like. It gave the United States an airport that, at least in some part, matched the great air terminals that had already been built in Europe. So in that way LaGuardia did serve as a model.

BLOCK: You know, in that newsreel that we were listening to, they're talking about this being the hub for giant transatlantic clippers, planes coming from Rio and Montreal and Lisbon. What was the shape of aviation in 1939?

BEDNAREK: Well, in 1939, if you were part of the flying public, you were an elite. So think of the people today who can fly first-class or super business class. And that's the folks who were flying. It was very elegant, and it was quite an adventurous thing to do.

BLOCK: And when did LaGuardia Airport's reputation really start the tumble?

BEDNAREK: Well, it began, really, with the expansion of domestic travel as early as the 1950s. LaGuardia is small. And so even before the war was over, New York was looking to build another airport, Idlewild, which became JFK because LaGuardia was so small. And as traffic expanded, LaGuardia's limitations just became more and more apparent.

BLOCK: So apart from being too small are there things about LaGuardia's design that don't fit with 21st century air travel?

BEDNAREK: Well, when LaGuardia was built, and for much of its early history, airlines flew point-to-point. There wasn't the hub-and-spoke system that we have today. And LaGuardia still doesn't function as a hub airport. It's a destination airport. It was designed for the terminals for individual airlines to use. It wasn't designed for people who had to transfer flights. It was not on public transportation. It was built for a different world.

BLOCK: Professor Bednarek, I'm assuming that you have to fly in and out of LaGuardia Airport from time to time?

BEDNAREK: I have on occasion.

BLOCK: Yeah? And what's that experience like for you as an aviation historian?

BEDNAREK: Well, it's really - to me, I was really excited the one time I came in and was at the Marine Air Terminal. That's a historic terminal. The historian in me, of course, was really excited that a 1939 terminal was still there and still in operation. But I was rather surprised with how dingy and uninspiring the rest of LaGuardia was.

BLOCK: Professor Bednarek, thanks so much for talking with us.

BEDNAREK: Well, thank you.

BLOCK: Janet Bednarek is an aviation historian. She teaches history at the University of Dayton. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.