FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: Memphis Airport Opened 93 Years Ago

In the years between World War I (when military aircraft first showed their ability to impact warfare) and World War II, interest in flying was high. “Barnstorming” pilots and air shows traveled across the country, sparking interest in this new mode of travel. It was also the period when the country’s first civilian airports were established. (To read a recent two-part article on the founding of San Francisco Airport, follow this link and then this link.)

Memphis Municipal Airport was officially opened on June 14, 1929. Two years earlier, Memphis Mayor Watkins Overton had established an airport planning commission. Among the main responsibilities of the commission was the selection of a site for the new airport. The commission chose Ward Farm, a 200-acre site about seven miles from downtown Memphis.

Memphis Municipal Airport in the late 1920s/early 1930s. (Photo: historic-memphis.com)
Memphis Municipal Airport in the late 1920s/early 1930s. (Photo: historic-memphis.com)

When the new Memphis Municipal Airport opened, it consisted of “three hangars and an unpaved grass runway.”

The Air Corps newsletter of the US War Department (a precursor to the current US Department of Defense) contained an article about the dedication of the airport. He noted that the festivities surrounding the inauguration featured military aircraft overflights not only of Tennessee, but also of Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Texas. At least 125 planes – military and civilian – performed festive flyovers over the new airport during its inaugural weekend.

The growth of the airport – 1930s-1950s

In 1930, Memphis Airport had its first lighted runway. Up to 15 passengers arrived and departed from the airport daily. American Airways and Chicago & Southern Airlines were the first two commercial carriers to serve the airport.

During this time, members of the Airport Planning Commission traveled regularly to Washington, D.C., with the goal of establishing Memphis Airport as a stopover on the U.S. airmail route. Their efforts paid off; the first official airmail letter arrived at Memphis airport at 11:30 a.m. on June 15, 1931.

The first mail flight to Memphis was an American Airlines Ford Tri-Motor aircraft.  (Photo: historic-memphis.com)
The first mail flight to Memphis was an American Airlines Ford Tri-Motor aircraft. (Photo: historic-memphis.com)

To meet demands for increased commercial passenger service, the airport’s first “modern” terminal was built in 1938. The following year, four new carriers began serving Memphis – Braniff, Capital, Eastern and Southern Airlines. Additionally, airlines began flying DC-3 airliners.

Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II, the United States military took control of Memphis airport and its facilities. The airport was one of the hubs used to transport planes on their trips abroad. Military use of the airport temporarily halted any expansion or progression of the commercial airport; however, when the war ended, airport officials began to react to the almost immediate growth in passenger travel. In 1947, the terminal built in 1938 was extended, while a master plan for the airport was drawn up to improve the runways for the largest aircraft put into service. In 1949, six major airlines operated to and from Memphis.

Eastern Airlines served Memphis in 1939. (Photo: historic-memphis.com)
Eastern Airlines served Memphis in 1939. (Photo: historic-memphis.com)

In 1956, a new airport planning commission began planning a new terminal building to usher the airport into the “jet age”.

A new airport was dedicated and opened on Mud Island in 1959. It was owned by the City of Memphis and leased for private operation, and was the closest airport to a city center in the United States. It catered primarily to business travelers, and its tagline was “You’re strictly in town when you land downtown.” However, Mud Island Airport closed in 1964.

The 1960s

The new terminal which had been authorized in the mid-1950s was inaugurated in 1963. It had 22 gates, which provided space for seven airlines to operate daily flights. At the same time, the name of the airport was changed to Memphis Metropolitan Airport. However, this name only lasted six years; the name was changed again in 1969 to Memphis International Airport, reflecting its status as an entry and departure point for international passengers and cargo.

Memphis International Airport in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (Photo: travelcodex.com)
The main terminal at Memphis International Airport in the late 1960s and early 1970s. (Photo: travelcodex.com)

The 1970s

Federal Express (now FedEx) was founded in 1971 in Little Rock, Arkansas. However, it moved its headquarters to Memphis in 1973. The company built a sorting facility and an administration building at the airport. The package sorting complex, known as the “Super Hub”, along with the company’s 24-hour operations, later combined to make Memphis International the busiest cargo airport in the world during 18 consecutive years (1993-2009) .

This illustration shows the first FedEx sorting facility at Memphis International Airport in the mid-1970s. (Illustration: FedEx)
This illustration shows the first FedEx sorting facility at Memphis International Airport in the mid-1970s. (Illustration: FedEx)

The 1980s-1990s

Republic Airways chose Memphis in 1985 as one of its hub airports. This greatly increased the number of passenger services at the airport. In 1986, Republic was acquired by Northwest Airlines, which led to a series of construction projects at the airport due to increased flights and passengers. Projects included expanding baggage handling facilities, updating passenger waiting areas and layout options, repaved runways, constructing a new maintenance complex and a new control. In addition, the Airports Authority completed work on a new master plan for the airport, which included the construction of a third parallel north-south runway, as well as the construction of a new international arrivals facility, which will opened its doors in 1995.

Memphis International Airport in the late 1980s, when Northwest maintained a hub there.  (Photo: Doug Bordelon/Pintrest)
Memphis International Airport in the late 1980s, when Northwest maintained a hub there.
(Photo: Doug Bordelon/Pintrest)

The 2000s

Delta Air Lines purchased Northwest Airlines in 2008. Since Memphis and Atlanta airports are relatively close to each other and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the tether” from Delta, Delta began to cut services to Memphis. The KLM (a Delta partner) flight to Amsterdam was discontinued in September 2012. In the fall of 2013, Delta officially dropped Memphis as one of its hubs.

The years 2010-now

In 2010, Memphis International Airport lost its number one cargo ranking to Hong Kong International Airport. Memphis remained the second-busiest international airport for cargo until 2020, when the surge in e-commerce (due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated stay-at-home restrictions) helped it to regain first place in this freight category. Of course, the vast majority of cargo shipped to and from Memphis is on FedEx aircraft.

FedEx aircraft at Memphis International Airport in 2018. (Photo: flymemphis.com)
FedEx aircraft at Memphis International Airport in 2018. (Photo: flymemphis.com)

The loss of the Delta Air Lines hub led the airport’s governing authority to approve an incentive policy to make the facility more attractive to air service providers. Currently, Memphis International Airport is served by the following airlines: Air Canada; American Airlines; Delta Airlines; Border Airlines; JetBlue Airways; Qatar Airways; Spirit Airlines; and United Airlines. Of course, like other airports, this list could change on very short notice.

FREIGHTWAVES’ Top 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes FedEx (#1).

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