Airline Expansion and Innovation (1927 - 1941)

"Nine-tenths of aviation is on the ground."

-Early aviation entrepreneur Clement Keys

What If?

Picture of an early airport
Yesterday's Airports of Tomorrow
See some of the radical ideas that have been proposed over the years.

The Creation of the Modern Airport

As the nation's air transportation system grew, so did the need for better aviation facilities. By 1940 the modern airport had come into being.

Aerodrome, landing field, air field: all described places an airplane could take off or land more than once. But open fields and parade grounds were unsuitable for commercial aviation. Without a network of adequate airports, an air transportation system was not possible.

As aircraft became bigger and passenger numbers rose, airports evolved to keep up. Air fields grew larger, grass gave way to pavement, and terminal buildings evolved from simple structures to architectural statements of modernity.

Chandler Field
National Air and Space Museum Archives

The Army Air Service helped design and construct a network of landing fields for the U.S. Air Mail Service. The design they came up with was a large, square, carefully prepared grass field with weather, navigation, and communications facilities. This one is Candler Field, Atlanta, circa 1927.

Glendale, California
National Air and Space Museum Archives

Glendale, California, circa 1932. The first boom in airport construction, funded mostly by local governments, began in 1926. It was bolstered by the enthusiasm generated by Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic flight in 1927 and his subsequent 48-state tour. Despite the Great Depression, by 1931 the number of airports had doubled to 2,000.

Union Air Terminal
National Air and Space Museum Archives

Union Air Terminal, Los Angeles, circa 1935. Modern airliners and increasing air traffic put a strain on airports and led to airport lighting, a national aviation weather service, radio navigation, and air traffic control. Heavier aircraft with wheel brakes made grass fields obsolete. By the 1940s, airports were building paved runways.

National Airport
National Air and Space Museum Archives

National Airport, Washington, D.C., circa 1941. As passenger numbers increased, so did the scale of terminals. Architects were hired to design beautiful but functional structures, which served two purposes: to impress upon passengers that air travel was safe and substantial, and to epitomize modernity and progress.