Every day, hundreds of thousands of people travel through airports and millions of people travel by airplane. You grumble and bitch and complain about everything, don’t you? It’s far to walk, your bags are too heavy. You can’t take this, that, the other, and another thing, onto the plane. The gates and terminals are miles apart and you’re running late. Security-checks, baggage snafus, X-rays, immigration, and that endless standing and watching and waiting and walking and running…and at all possible hours of the day and night!
Airports are such a pain in the ass.
So, who do we have to blame for this nightmare? While you’re waiting for that flight which is three hours late, and which will last twelve hours from London to Singapore, why don’t you sit back and find out about the history of airports?
From the 19th century up until the 1950s and 60s, almost all international travel was done by railroad or ocean-liner. You rode in comfortable and luxurious Pullman cars across the vast expanses of the United States. You rode the Orient Express across the Continent. From ports like Southampton, New York, Melbourne, Sydney, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Calais, Port Sa’id, Tokyo and Bombay, your ship or ocean-liner took you all over the world. Shipping lines such as the Hamburg-America, White Star, Red Star, French, Nippon Yusen Kaisha (better known as the NYK Line) and Pacific & Oriental (better known today as P&O) were world-famous, and shipping lines were all in direct competition with each other to grab as big a slice of the customer pie as possible.
Ports and railroad stations were major hubs. Victoria Station in London, Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong. The Port of Shanghai, New York Harbor, Grand Central Terminal, Union Station, King’s Cross, Paris Gare du Nord, Victoria Dock in Melbourne; all names which were once as familiar to us today as United Airlines, Qantas, British Airways, Singapore Airlines, and Pan-American.
We think that the Golden Age of Travel, the era when international large-scale passenger transport was possible for the first time, was confined solely to smoke-belching trains and ocean-liners, but even in the 1910s, airplanes and airports were beginning to make a name for themselves. And this is their story.
Starting in the mid-1910s, airplanes started becoming a serious form of transport. The First World War saw the first large-scale use of airplanes, for bombing, reconnaissance, artillery-spotting and the most thrilling of all – aerial combat – dogfights!
But what to do when the war was over?
Yes, airplanes had proved their worth, but for the large part, airplanes were still very experimental – most of them were made of nothing but wood and canvas, with struts and wire stays to hold the whole flimsy thing together.
But with the end of the war, there was suddenly a surplus of planes…and skilled pilots…who were suddenly out of a job!
So began the first experimental passenger flights, in the early interwar period.
With the first flights, came the first ‘airfields’.
Early airfields were nothing fancy – quite literally a field, with precious little besides, and usually belonging to, or purchased from a farmer. Fields owned by farmers were of necessity, flat, smooth, dry, and free of stones, tree-stumps and other impediments; ideally suited for aircraft landing. There were no terminals, no control-towers, not even any runways to speak of – nobody envisioned that air-travel would be used for anything more than the delivery of mail, anyway!
Early airfields were simply open fields…with grass. Handy for landing, not so great for taking off. Grassy fields created drag on the undercarriage and landing-wheels of early aircraft, which inhibited takeoff. Things were improved slightly when someone got out the lawnmower and the grassy field was replaced by dirt runways, but even these had issues – in wet weather, dirt runways turned to roads of sludge, making it impossible to take off, or land! It was clear that proper aircraft-handling facilities were required.
So when and where did the first airports pop up?
The World’s First Airports
The oldest airport still in operation was built so long ago, it was barely older than the machines it was built to handle! Opened in 1909 by Wilbur Wright, the College Park Airport, in Maryland, the United States, is the oldest airport in the world!
Originally, the College Park Airport was a training-ground, for the Wright Brothers to show off their new invention – the airplane! But by 1911, it had become an established airport, with wealthy civilians using the area to land and house their own machines. Among other historic events, College Park saw the first experimental helicopter test-flights in the 1920s.
In the postwar period of the 20s and 30s, large-scale passenger transport was still done with ocean-liners and steam-trains. But eventually, airlines started being formed, and they blossomed into the companies which we know today.
In Australia, a company called the Queensland And Northern Territory Aerial Services commences operations in 1921. In 1926, Germany establishes Deutsche Luft Hansa (three words). The same year, Northwest Airways is established…wasn’t that in a movie somewhere, starring Cary Grant?
A year later in 1927, in the United States, something called Pan American World Airways first takes to the skies, in 1927 with its famous seaplanes.
In Europe, where there was an established flying culture because of the First World War, and where short distances between countries made early passenger flights practical, the first airports were established.
In 1927, Tempelhof Airport was built near Berlin. Around the same time in England, land near an old race-course is used for aerodrome purposes. In 1930, it will become the famous London Gatwick Airport.
The old Tempelhof Airport, Berlin
Early Airlines and Airplanes
Aerial services were slow to catch on in the United States. With such vast amounts of land to cover between major cities from state to state, it wasn’t possible for many early airplanes to make the distance. They simply didn’t have the size or the fuel capacity to fly that far. Instead, the Americans focused on transatlantic flights.
With the establishment of the famous Pan Am Airways in 1927, America had an airline that could fly its passengers to countries like those in South America, but also to Europe and up and down the east and west coasts of the United States. The early passenger planes were romantically called the Pan Am Clippers. The word ‘clipper’ comes from a type of fast sailing ship, so fast that it ‘clips’ or skims along the water. The analogy was transferred to aircraft which would ‘clip’ through the air. An age of romantic and stylish air-travel had begun.
Pan American route-map, 1936
Travelling by Pan Am clippers was expensive, and could only be done from certain cities – all the planes were seaplanes, which took off from, and landed at, coastal regions. Pan Am was one of the first airlines to offer transatlantic flights.
The limitations of aircraft in the 1930s meant that not all flights were direct. Although Pan Am was flying the latest seaplanes, as designed by the famous Boeing aircraft-manufacturers, sometimes, a plane flying from America to Europe might stop at Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland for refueling, before finally arriving in France or the United Kingdom. Some simply did not have the fuel-capacity or size to brave direct routes across the Atlantic Ocean. To restore passenger confidence, Pan Am had among the best pilots in the world – specially trained and carefully selected for their long-haul routes, where pilots were expected not just to fly the plane, but also fix it, if it had to make an emergency landing on the ocean, and get it back into the air again!
Come fly with me, let’s fly, let’s fly away…
A Pan American clipper seaplane, typical of the 1930s and 40s
Despite technological limitations of the times and low passenger-capacities, the old ‘clipper’ seaplanes did have one advantage which most modern aircraft do not. As they were designed to take off and land on water, the likelihood of surviving an emergency landing on water (a real possibility in those days!) was generally quite high. One such Pan Am aircraft, the Honolulu Clipper, flying Pacific Ocean routes, was forced to land in the middle of the ocean in 1945, when its starboard engines failed. The plane made a safe water-landing, but the pilots were unable to restart or repair their dysfunctional engines. Radio-contact with passing ships saw the passengers safely offloaded, but attempts to tow or fly the plane back to a coastal service-area failed, and it was left to drift and sink.
The same thing happened again in 1947, when another Pan Am ‘clipper’ (this time, the Bermuda Sky Queen) ran out of fuel halfway across the Atlantic! In the middle of a fierce storm, the aircraft was forced to make a crash-landing on the heaving Atlantic Ocean. Against all probability, the seaplane survives the impact with the water, and remained afloat for 24 hours! Long enough for pilots to send out distress messages, and to offload passengers into inflatable life-rafts stored on the airplane. The U.S. Coast Guard responds to the radio call for help, and rescue all passengers and crew.
It was incidents like this that assured the flying public of Pan America’s safety, boosting their numbers of passengers and increasing the need for better airports. Even if their ‘clipper’ got into strife, they knew that they would be able to land safely and be reliably rescued, thanks to radio communications.
From the 1900s until the late 1930s, what with airplanes being unable to travel long distances with safety, most people thought that the way forward for air-travel lay in the famous Zeppelin airships made famous by the Germans. Airships were slower than planes, but faster than ocean-liners, and could carry passengers in comfort. However, a series of devastating crashes in the 1930s, most famously, that of the Hindenburg, scared the flying public away from airship travel. And at any rate, by the end of the Second World War, aircraft design and capabilities had improved enough to make airships a thing of the past!
As air-travel becomes more and more appealing and romantic, the larger numbers of passengers all around the world means that serious thought must now be given to airport design and functionality. Below, we’ll find out about the origins of some of the features that would be found in any modern airport today.
A crucial component of all airports is one which most people never notice. Air-traffic control. Without it, no airport could possibly operate with any degree of safety or efficiency.
Air traffic control as we might know it today, has its origins in 1920s London. At Croydon Airport outside of the city, the first radio-operated air-traffic control systems are put in place in the early 1920s after two aircraft, one flying towards, and one away, from the airport, collide in midair.
To get better fixings on airplane-locations in the future, all airplanes are fitted with radio-beacons which send out waves. Three receivers around the airport bounce back the radio-waves, and by using three points of reference, are able to get an accurate fix on the location of any one aircraft at a time. This is the birth of modern aircraft tracking and positioning, which is eventually improved in the 1930s and 40s, with the arrival of 1st-generation RADAR.
As airports began to be more established in the 1930s, serious thought was finally being given to airport design. At the height of the Art Deco craze, airports of the 1930s were typically modeled after the only other example of large, passenger-handling buildings familiar to architects and designers at the time – grand railroad stations.
Modelling airports after the great railroad stations of Europe and the Americas had their pluses and minuses. Having large halls and gathering areas was convenient, but it could be tricky when it came to separating arriving and departing passengers. It would be too easy to get lost in the big central terminal which comprised the bulk of early airports. It was now that architects realised that some way of separating and organising passengers would need to be inbuilt into any future airport designs.
The idea of airport gates as we might know them today, came about in the 30s with London’s Gatwick Airport.
In order to load, offload and service as many airplanes as possible, Gatwick’s main terminal was built in a stylish “Beehive” shape:
The ‘Beehive’ meant that planes could circle around the central terminal, load up or offload passengers, and then taxi away smoothly, without the danger of crashing into other aircraft. This also allowed for passengers to be spread out, and be more easily organised, instead of being huddled up and being channeled through two or three doors. Corridors, walls and partitions inside the circular building could divide passengers into arrivals and departures. Now, they could move smoothly through the building, and in and out through multiple entrances and exits, speeding service and easing congestion.
Welcome to…’The Beehive’!
The first prototype gates were introduced at Gatwick. Previously, boarding a plane was an unpleasant experience – you left the terminal and crossed the tarmac and climbed a set of boarding-stairs onto the aircraft. This was bearable during good weather, but when it was rainy or windy, or even snowing, you probably felt more comfortable taking a train!
To provide passengers with greater comfort and protection from the elements, Gatwick Airport installed the first retractable, telescopic corridors ever to be used in airports – and which are the grandparents of all the covered boarding-ramps which we have today.
Numbering six in total, the telescoping corridors slotted neatly into each other and could be retracted when a plane was taxiing into position, and then rolled out once the aircraft was in place for boarding. Having six gates allowed for greater passenger organisation, and prevented overcrowding.
As airports boomed in the 1950s and 60s, with the arrival of the jet-age and the ‘jet-set’, and the vast advances made in aircraft design during the Second World War, airport improvements struggled to keep up. Organising passengers, providing amenities, providing parking, baggage-handling and other services became constant struggles.
Terminals, large buildings which organise passengers, and provide them with the facilities and amenities which they need and require, are a key part of every airport in the world.
Imagine trying to board a plane, when you have to run from one building to another, to another, to another, then out onto the tarmac, and then onto the plane…
You’d rather walk from San Francisco to Chicago.
It was buildings such as the ‘Beehive’ (mentioned further up) that showed how all airport facilities could be housed, and how passengers could be sorted, all inside one building – comfortably, efficiently and without wasting time or money.
Airport terminals continued to evolve in the postwar period. Larger passenger-numbers meant that organisation was crucial. New York’s famous La Guardia Airport, which opened in the late 1930s, took the Gatwick model and upgraded it for even larger passenger loads, and better organisation.
The difference was that the ‘Beehive’ terminal at Gatwick is just one level – restaurants, ticket-counters and facilities are all on the ground floor – and upstairs is all offices. And arriving and departing passengers are all handled in that one, ground floor area. Yes, you can sort them out as they enter or leave, but not while they’re in the actual building. For the city which coined the phrase a ‘New York Minute‘, having thousands of passengers wandering around aimlessly inside their new airport terminal is a huge waste of time!
La Guardia Airport, 1940s. Note the seaplane dock, for Pan Am ‘clippers’
To nip this problem in the bud, the terminal at La Guardia is built on two levels! Departures are upstairs, arrivals are downstairs! They never mix, they never mingle, there’s no chance for someone to get lost. Passengers arriving at La Guardia can go straight in, where waiting friends or relations can meet them on the ground floor, without having to find their way upstairs and get lost. Departing passengers head to the upper level when they reach the airport, and wait for their aircraft, well out of the way of arrivals from overseas or other parts of the country. Also located in the departing area were restaurants, bathrooms, shops, lounges, public telephones and other facilities which allowed a departing passenger to kill the time between arriving at the airport, and actually sauntering out to his airplane.
Airport Security and Baggage Check-In
The one thing which everyone can’t stand – airport security. Metal-detectors, x-ray machines, dipweeds standing around waving wands up and down trying to find stuff on your body that ain’t there, and all eating up valuable time which you could be using to buy duty-free items. Like those chocolates. Or wine. Books for the flight, or CDs for your friend back home.
In the postwar era, airport security became a serious issue. With more and more people boarding aircraft and with more people flying, it became increasingly difficult to run security checks. Skyjackings forced the hands of many airports to try and find ways to stop terrorists at airports, before they boarded the planes.
Skyjackings were at an all-time high in the 60s and 70s; up to forty attempts were made on American aircraft in 1969 alone! Airports could not turn a blind eye to this. If people were afraid to fly, then airports would be bleeding money and losing customers nonstop, which would be a disaster.
The first airport metal-detectors and luggage-scanners entered terminals in the 1970s, taking inspiration from the log-scanners used at sawmills, to detect foreign bodies buried in tree-trunks, such as nails and bullets. Electromagnets on all sides scan a person as he goes through the metal-detector, and any metal on the body is reflected back to the magnets, which triggers that annoying beeping sound that we all hate so much!
At around the same time that airport security started becoming an issue, airport baggage-handling was taking a step up.
Previously, all luggage was handled by human bag-handlers. And generally, most of it still is. But the innovation came in how bags were sorted and organised in the airport. The way forward was shown in the mid-1970s, when barcodes, like those found on almost every type of consumer-product today, started becoming commonplace.
The idea of barcodes started back in the 1940s, but it wasn’t until the 70s that reliable printing methods (which didn’t smudge the ink, rendering the codes illegible) allowed barcodes to become part of everyday life. Poor printing of barcodes meant that the laser-scanners which read the codes could not distinguish between the different bars, when the ink smudged or ran together.
Now, when you check in, a tag is stuck onto your suitcase or roller-bag, with a barcode on it. And a simple scanning of the code tells the conveyor belts and baggage-handling systems where any particular bag is meant to be, and which flight it is destined to.
The Golden Age of Flight
The 1930s-1960s was the ‘Golden Age’ of commercial aviation. The time when it was new, exciting, and changing all the time. Yes, it’s still changing, but now it’s part of everyday life, and it’s frustrating and boring and just a means for getting from A to B. How much air-travel has changed since this period up to the modern day is staggering. And not just because now, we all have our own little movie-screens in our seatbacks, and can no-longer pack knitting-needles and crochet-hooks into our carry-ons.
Differences between aircraft travel then, and now, is the incredibly relaxed nature of older air-travel. Not just in security and luggage-allowances and whatnot, but also in the positioning of seats and greater attention being paid to style and passenger comfort, which to a certain extent doesn’t exist anymore.
For one, aircraft interiors were designed to be much more open-plan, in a manner which most (unless it’s a private aircraft) are not, today. This flexibility and openness is sadly missing, from much of modern air-travel, where people have to fight for leg-room and moving-space, instead of being crammed into airplanes like sardines. The idea that ‘legroom’ was an issue on older aircraft is probably laughable! And before the days of personal video-screens, passengers had much more creative ways of killing time during those long flights.
Bored? Why not show off your music chops on the keys, and provide some live entertainment for fellow passengers? If they vote you off, a parachute is stored under the piano-bench.
Our Final Approach
The next time you’re hauling your luggage through the terminal, patting yourself down to make sure you didn’t forget your tickets, passport, wallet, photographs, iPad, pens, favourite book, keys, or other essentials, spare a thought for the long, trial-and-error journey that the modern airport took.
It’s come a long way from a farmer’s field that’s had a once-over with a lawnmower. The modern airport has everything from hotels, restaurants, shops, medical clinics, cinemas, internet-access and prayer-rooms. Even a multistory slide, if you’re stuck in Singapore’s Changi Airport for a few hours with nothing to do.
Few other buildings have had the challenges of airports – organisation, people-management, security, luggage-handling, segregation and amenities. And yet without them, modern air-travel would be thoroughly impossible.
Want more information?
Big, Bigger, Biggest:
Episodes – ‘Aircraft’, ‘Airports’.
Modern Marvels: ‘Airports’