How LaGuardia Airport Came To Be

Posted 11/20/03

By Ray Kohler

As some may know, TWA played an integral role in the establishment, early development and operation of New York’s LaGuardia Airport. However, to fully understand the story we must go back to the period 1934 to 1944.

Fiorello La Guardia, formerly a flamboyant U.S. Congressman, had been sworn in as Mayor of New York City on January 1, 1934. Immediately he began applying his well-known bombastic investigative style to every facet of his new organization. In time, he got to one of his favorite gripes -- the fact that airline passengers ticketed to New York were actually deplaned at Newark, New Jersey, the eastern terminus of all flights.

Local lore had it that he began a relentless flood of personal telephone calls and assorted memos to State and Federal decision-makers (especially his friend President Roosevelt) to lobby for an airport in New York. To bolster his case, he zeroed in on an almost defunct private airport on the water’s edge of Flushing Bay on Long Island. Visualizing a world-class airplane and seaplane base, by 1936 or 1937 he had pulled together enough support to begin construction of a $44 million project, soon to be labeled "Fiorello’s Folly."

Striving to get the airport into operation in time to bolster the famous 1939 World’s Fair, the project was completed in two years by 5,000 workers toiling in three shifts, six days per week. No one seems to remember the hectic work that three airlines, TWA, American and United put in to help create a truly functioning, safe and customer-friendly facility, but the results tell us that their efforts must have been tremendous. On October 15, 1939, "North Beach Airport" was officially dedicated. Sometime in that same year, the New York City Council voted to rename it, La Guardia Field.

For its time, the airport was a gem. The three vast hangars, one each for TWA, AAL and UAL stood side-by-side at one end of the land, connected by paved areas to a huge, modern administration building that boasted the world’s brightest rotating beacon on its top. The runway was the world’s longest at 6,000 feet, and was built to withstand twenty-five tons per square inch.

Soon LGA was handling 200 flights a day, but with the increasing popularity of flying the need for additional runways soon became a priority. It is not known exactly how many meetings airline executives had with LaGuardia and his various staffs, but by late 1943 things must have progressed sufficiently to cause the following letter to be sent to TWA in January 1944:

Dear Mr. Jack Frye:

This is the last call on the matter of the runway layout at the new airport.

Thursday, February 3rd, 1944, at my office, City Hall, at 2:30 p.m. o’clock, come prepared to make any suggestion or forever hold your peace. I have heard some grousing about the present layout which I know is not justified. If you have any cockeyed ideas on tangent runways that have not been tried out, save them for some other time.

I am willing to hear constructive criticism and to receive helpful suggestions. I cannot compete against white tablecloths and soft pencils. Everyone who gets two drinks under his belt is now designing runway layouts on restaurant tables.

We will have a map here, our consulting engineer will be here, and I expect to have the matter finally, completely and definitely settled.

You may bring anyone you desire from your engineering, technical and piloting staff. Lawyers cannot contribute anything. This is not a legal matter.

Very truly yours,

F. H. LaGuardia, Mayor

One can only presume that similar letters were sent to the presidents of American and United. But to this day, I wish that I could have been a fly of the wall at that meeting! Whatever happened -- either because of or in spite of it -- LGA went on to become an outstanding station on TWA’s system.

Ray Kohler (1939-1972) served TWA in Operations, Sales, and Advertising & Sales Promotion at LGA, NYC, LAX, and HNL, and Saudi Arabian Airlines in Jedda.

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