A Brief History of Airports

If you asked any pilot where their favorite place to be was, they would probably tell you it’s the airport.  Personally I love being an airport rat; watching the aircraft come and go, and the hustle and bustle of those that pass through.  However, did you ever think to stop and ask yourself just where did airports come from?  Who’s idea was it to build a structure that airports parked at where you could get on and off in complete comfort?

First Comes Flight…

As you probably know, flight as we know it began on December 17, 1903 when Orville Wright successfully completed the first controlled, powered, and sustained flight in Kitty Hawk, NC.  While only 12 seconds in length, this flight event changed the face of transportation.  A few years later, the first commercial airline flight was on January 1, 1914 in Tampa Bay, FL in a flying boat biplane lasting 23 minutes, and a ticket only cost $5.00.

And Then the First Airport…

Now, pilots in those days used just about anything to land an aircraft on.  It could be pretty much any flat area of land, i.e., a landing strip.  Otherwise, a designated landing strip was an all-dirt or cement strip.  The first official airport opened in 1908 in Albany New York – by 1928 it had gone through a reconstruction, which added 3 runways.

The early days of LGA or LaGuardia Airport.

WWI Means Airports & More Airports!

During WWI, aircraft were used as a way to not only transport troops, supplies, and personnel, but was also used in combat.  As a result, hundreds of manufacturing plants popped all over the U.S. producing thousands of aircraft and resulting in hundreds of military pilots that were trained.

Because of this, airfields often popped up near the manufacturing plants in order to get the aircraft to military bases.  Before 1914, 3 military airfields had been built, and by 1918, 980 official landing fields existed.   These airfields offered services such as fueling, maintenance, and parking.

Post WWII…

In a number of years, WWII had come and gone leaving a surplus of military airports in the U.S.  986 airports had been built by the end of the war and suddenly the military found that they didn’t need all those airports anymore.  More than 500 military airports were then handed over to local governments, or municipalities.  Local government ownership is still the most common form of ownership today.

Eventually, the government realized that these airports needed funding to keep them in repair and in 1946, the Federal Airport Act was passed to fund $500 million in grants for airport construction, improvement, and maintenance.  This Act was very important as airports didn’t have to fight the many other government agencies for federal funding.

Pre Deregulation…

Pre Deregulation (legislation that changed how airlines competed) was a very important time for airports.  In 1970, there were 2 Acts passed:  Title I was the Airport and Airway Development Act, and Title II was the Airport and Airway Revenue Act.

Title I provided $250 million to establish and improve the preexisting navigational facilities.  It also established minimum standards for airports and issued operating certificates.

Title II created the Airport and Airway Trust Fund – this mean there would always be a separate pool of funding specifically for airports.  This pool of money was funded by several avenues:  an 8% tax on domestic passengers, a $3.00 surcharge on tickets in the U.S., a $0.07 tax per gallon of jet fuel, a 5% tax on airfreight waybills and an annual registration fee.  This explains most of the fees tacked on top of your airfare – this goes directly back to the airports to keep them in working condition and operation.


Deregulation was a purely capitalistic Act by the government.  There were two areas that deregulation affected: one was Air Cargo Freedoms and the other Airline Freedoms.  Air cargo operations could now raise or lower rates at will, serve any market (previously restricted to that of what the government mandated), and could own and operate trucks.  Airlines could now freely enter and exit the market, expand their routes were they wanted to (they were mandated to certain routes by the government), and could set their own airfares (these had also been government-controlled).


After deregulation, the structure of airlines changed much.  Airlines now based in one or two major cities, or hubs.  Routes, or spokes, served many destinations from these main cities – this helped to maximize aircraft productiveness and enhance the number of passengers carried per leg of a flight.  The hub and spoke system would pick passengers up from outlying, smaller airports, taking them into hubs where they would connect to their destination.

Eventually, acts were passed for safety, noise abatement, and capacity expansion.  A Passenger Facility Charge (PFC) was a result of the Aviation Safety and Capacity Expansion Act of 1990.  The PFCs weren’t to be abused though, as they were guided by 10 different guidelines as to what that money could be used for.  They were charged in whole dollar amounts of $1, $2, or $3 per passenger.  The fees could only be charge twice on each leg or a round trip.  The money would go back directly to the airport and used for safety, security, reduction of noise, or enhancement of competition between air carriers.  These funds were combined with the federal grant funds and could only be used on a project that had PFC application approved.  In addition, different sizes of airports have their federal funding reduced depending on how much in PFCs they collect.

LGA exteriors
Lined up and ready to go.

Post 9/11…

After 9/11, airport security changed dramatically.  In 2001, the Aviation and Transportation Security Act was passed establishing the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA).  What was initially started to focus on all modes of transportation ended up zeroing in on airport security, and for good reason.  The TSA were required to conduct background checks on airport employees, screen all checked baggage, and screen all passengers and carry-on bags – this screening process also included scanning with certified explosive detection devices.

Briefly Said…

In case you were wondering how we got from dirt strips to airports like Los Angeles/LAX, now you know!  The industry has come a long ways and it will keep expanding as air travel increases.   Airports are constantly having to expand their terminals and restructure their airfields.  I’m personally excited to see what new airport will be developed next, or what an existing airport will look like in 20 years.   Where else can you leave from with thousands of destinations to choose from?

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4 thoughts on “A Brief History of Airports

  1. John

    Anyone else notice in the first part it is talking about the wright brothers flight and then states a few years after their flight the first commercial flight was in 2014


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