Adapting with the times: airport history

Marnix (Max) Groot by Marnix (Max) Groot | Nov 11, 2021

Time to take stock

The aviation sector moves with lightning speed and all stakeholders are continuously dealing with the challenges of today and tomorrow, especially in this current period. When the future seems uncertain, it is sometimes good to take a step back to see and appreciate all that has been achieved in our great industry.

Growth and paradigm changes

Over the last six decades, the story of airports has been one of adjusting to the relentless growth of air traffic as well as major paradigm changes, such as the advent of the 747, the hub-and-spoke system, low-cost carriers, increased security threats, and the transformation of airports from utilities to commercial enterprises. It is truly fascinating to see how each airport has dealt with these challenges in their own unique way.

In the past, some airports were not able to cope with growth and had to be closed and rebuilt elsewhere. Captivating are the stories of once bustling airports that are now gone and all but forgotten by younger generations such as Denver Stapleton, Hong Kong Kai Tak, Munich Riem, and Oslo Fornebu, to name but a few.

A 1962 aerial of Hong Kong’s legendary Kai Tak Airport. By the 1990s, congestion became a serious issue. In 1998, the airport was replaced by Chek Lap Kok Airport

A critical period is the early Jet Age, where radical experiments in airport design took place, some successful, many less so. A successful example is Amsterdam Schiphol’s 1967 passenger terminal. It was designed to expand in a box-like modular fashion. The architecture certainly did not stand out, but now, over half a century later, the original terminal is still at the heart of the current sprawling and highly functional complex.

A 1967 aerial of Amsterdam’s Schiphol then brand-new terminal complex. The terminal was designed to expand and adjust. As a result, the original terminal is still part of the current complex

On the opposite end, we have examples such as New York’s Kennedy “Terminal City,” where each airline operated its individually designed terminal or Paris-de Gaulle’s circular “Aérogare 1.” Many of these early monuments to the Jet Age quickly became obsolete as they proved difficult to be altered and expand.

A 1960 view of Pan Am’s then-new terminal at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, then still called Idlewild. Although a beautiful monument to the Jet Age, the terminal struggled to cope with growing traffic volumes and changing requirements.

With their parallel runways and linear terminals, the new airports built throughout Asia in the last decades have profited from the—sometimes painful—lessons drawn from western experience in the 1960s and 1970s.

Airport adaptation and resilience

Certain paradigm changes caused some airports to lose their traffic almost overnight or created golden opportunities. Truly inspiring are the stories of airports that successfully reinvented themselves as bustling cargo or low-cost carrier hubs. Airports like Anchorage, Cincinnati, Chicago’s Midway, and London Stansted come to mind.

A busy international concourse at Anchorage International Airport, photographed in 1989. With the advent of the 747-400 and direct routes over Siberia, the concourse would soon stand virtually abandoned. Nowadays, ‘Ted Stevens International Airport’ is a bustling cargo hub. In addition, passenger traffic has fully recovered with traffic to and from the lower 48 states filling the gap.
CREDIT: via Peter Garwood
For years, Stansted Airport, London’s third airport, was struggling to find its niche alongside Heathrow and Gatwick. Then came along the low-cost revolution, with airlines like easyJet and Ryanair quickly gobbling up the available capacity.
CREDIT: Stansted Airport

There is no precedent in history for the collective shock that has hit aviation in the last two years. Perhaps, the only event that comes close is the Second World War. Of course, one immediately must make the caveat that during that time, aviation was completely inconsequential to the life of the common person, let alone the economy.

But for those who know aviation history, one thing is clear: the genie of widely available air travel is out of the bottle and is here to stay. People will adjust, carry on, and take back to the skies. And airports will do what they have always done, adapt and go with the times.

Airport time capsules in the WATR

To ensure that all this great history is not lost, eight years ago, was established with the aim to protect and preserve the colorful heritage of the world’s great airports. The AirportHistory archives contain hundreds of thousands of vintage images, reports, and brochures, chronicling the development history of airports around the world, and going back to the earliest days of aviation.

ACI and have now teamed up to connect the present, past, and future of airports. And thus, it is with great pride that in the 2021 Annual World Airport Traffic Report (WATR) we present our readers with eight “time capsules,” capturing the history of eight airports spread over six continents, and some of whom rarely finding the spotlight.

Annual World Airport Traffic Report, 2021
Read now

Each capsule contains a selection of carefully curated images from the AirportHistory archives as well as fascinating historical facts that will make you reappreciate the magnificent facilities they have become today.

We hope that the images and the stories will amaze and inspire you, and most importantly, make you feel proud to be part of airport history as it evolves with the times.

Marnix (Max) Groot

Marnix (Max) Groot

Airport Development Expert
Marnix Groot (Netherlands, 1975) is a passionate airport development expert with 18 years of experience as an airport advisor working on projects related to master planning, terminal planning, commercial development, air service development, business planning, strategy, privatization, and organizational restructuring. Marnix is editor at the Momberger Airport Information—the world’s oldest airport newsletter—where he reports on airport expansion projects around the world. He is also Founder and Editor of, an authoritative online publication, which chronicles the development history of the world’s airports. Lastly, Marnix instructs and lectures in the areas of airport (historic) development. Marnix has previously worked for IATA, Lufthansa Consulting, NACO Netherlands Airport Consultants, Royal Schiphol Group, Transavia Airlines, Dutch Air Traffic Control and KLM Cargo.
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