Now and Then: LaGuardia Airport

LaGuardia Airport offers so much more than noises of airplanes whistled through during another quiet day at Queens borough or outgoing local flights from the city for those seeking the way out of the busy city or inbound trips for wide-eyed “outsiders” coming in for a taste of the Big Apple. LaGuardia stood the test of time as one of 12 Work Progress Administration Projects devised by the US government during the Great Depression that still exist until today (

LaGuardia Airport as we know of it today, sits on the original site of the Gala Amusement Park that was owned by the Steinway family (La Guardia and Wagner Archives). Gala Amusement Park was transformed in 1929 into a 105-acre private flying field that was named Glenn H. Curtiss Airport and later North Beach Airport. The story of how LaGuardia Airport came to existence revolves around the arrival of then mayor Fiorello La Guardia at Newark, NJ after his vacation. Since his plane ticket said “New York” yet he was taken to the only commercial airport serving New York City at the time in New Jersey, La Guardia demanded to be flown to Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field. Enraged by the lack of air access in New York City, the mayor gave an impromptu press conference after his arrival, urging New Yorkers to support a new airport in New York City.

American Airlines worked together with La Guardia to run a pilot program of scheduled flights to Floyd Bennett that failed because of Newark’s proximity to Manhattan. La Guardia tried to preserve the program by offering private security services to airport rides, yet the program ceased to exist after a short while.

The Big Apple’s desire for a city would have only remained a dream until September 1937, when the Work Progress Administration joined with the city to build a new airport. La Guardia and American Airlines executives found an alternative to Floyd Bennett in Queens, where it could capitalize on the new Queens-Midtown Tunnel to Manhattan. The new location, North Beach Airport on the shore of Flushing Bay, was much too small for the sort of airport that was being planned. Building required moving landfill from Rikers Island onto a metal reinforcing framework that sometime still causes magnetic interference on the compasses of outgoing aircraft; numerous signs on the airfield warn pilots about the problem (Steinke).

The construction of the new airport, New York Municipal Airport, was said by the WPA “partly to create new jobs during the Depression and partly because it wanted to develop America’s commercial transportation system.”

New York Municipal Airport featured innovative terminal design that kept arriving and departing passengers separated on two levels for greater efficiency, terminals adorned with Art Deco details and fine restaurants and a rooftop viewing promenade as well as many technological details that made flying safer and less expensive ( New York Municipal Airport opened in October 15 1939, being the largest, most advanced commercial airport in the world to date.

The public was fascinated by the very idea of air travel, and thousands traveled to the airport, paid the dime fee, and watched the airliners take off and land. Two years later these fees and their associated parking provided huge financial success for the airport.

Newark Airport began renovations in 1940 but could not keep up with the new fledging Queens airport, which the Time magazine dubbed “the most pretentious land and seaplane base in the world.” A smaller airport located in adjacent Jackson Heights, Holmes Airport, was unable to prevent the expansion of the larger airport and had to close in 1940.

The new airport was rechristened LaGuardia Airport after the mayor, who had been a bomber pilot in World War I and whose interest in aviation lasted throughout his lifetime, almost a month after it opened.

Through the 1940’s and 50’s, the American aviation industry grew and expanded at a rapid pace and LaGuardia suffered from the same problem it has been suffered ever since its inception: its limited surrounding land available for expansion. By the late 40’s, LaGuardia became the world’s busiest airport and was too small for the new burdening amount of air traffic. Although after having expanded 2,000 fts to each runway and taxiway on steel piers extending into Flushing Bay, LaGuardia has the shortest runways of any American commercial airport.

Today, LaGuardia, JFK International, and Newark Liberty International airports combine to create the largest airport system in the United States, second in the world in terms of passenger traffic, and first in the world in terms of total flight operations. LaGuardia was leased to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey under a lease with the City of New York since June 1, 1947 and until today only deliver local flights into and out of New York City. LaGuardia Airport, besides its amazing history and track record, will remain one of the WPA’s foremost contribution to New York City.

Works cited:

International, the Editors of Publications, and  Ltd.. “HowStuffWorks “12 WPA Projects that Still Exist”.” HowStuffWorks “Business & Money”. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. <>.

Stoff, Joshua. “‘LaGuardia Airport’ Traces Aviation History  | | Queens Gazette.” Front Page | | Queens Gazette. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. <>.

“The Bowery Boys:  New York City History: PODCAST: LaGuardia Airport.” The Bowery Boys:  New York City History. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. <>.

“The Plane Truth.” Queens Tribune. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. <>.

“Transport: LaGuardia’s Coup – TIME.” Breaking News, Analysis, Politics, Blogs, News Photos, Video, Tech Reviews – N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. <,9171,760199,00.html>.

4 thoughts on “Now and Then: LaGuardia Airport

  1. This was a really fun post to read, since it’s essentially a good story that focuses mainly on the Depression. The visuals are also very good, although you need to caption all of them with source information.

    To strengthen the post just a bit, try to polish the language (there are some mismatched nouns/verbs, as well a few clunky phrases such as “whose interest in aviation lasted throughout his lifetime, almost a month after it opened,” making LaGuardia’s lifetime sound like it opened a month after). Also, could you include just a bit at the end about the airport during the Recession (airline bankruptcies come to mind)?

  2. This was an extremely well organized and written post. I found the history of LaGuardia Airport quite fascinating, and felt its origin and rise a very “American” story. You made excellent use of the greater historical context encompassing LaGuardia, and documented quite well the development of commercial aviation. In addition, you did a good job in including details of the Great Depression and the public projections which came out of the New Deal. I really don’t know much about LaGuardia’s role during the Great Recession (though the professor referenced a potential bankruptcy), so I feel you could have explored that.

  3. It was really interesting to read about a place that I’ve been to many times without stopping to think about its history and origins. I agree with both Professor Brooks and Josh that it would be interesting to hear more about the recession’s effect- I remember there were a lot of airline companies in the news during the recession for either shutting down, merging together or adding additional fees to passengers for extra luggage, etc. It would be interesting to see how these changes affected the airport/ customers.

  4. For me I often take airports for granted ( I guess in a way) because I expect it to have been and continue to be here in a city like New York. But it was really interesting to read your post and learn of all the changes LaGuardia Airport went through to provide the kind of services it does today. I also found it very strange and interesting that people traveled and actually paid to watch airplanes take off and land. Over time people have gotten so used to airplanes that now most of us don’t even care to look up when they fly over us.

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