• DTS.USA
    5.811
    -0.009
    -0.2%
  • NTI.USA
    2.860
    0.000
    0%
  • NTID.USA
    2.900
    0.060
    2.1%
  • NTIDL.USA
    2.000
    0.060
    3.1%
  • OTRI.USA
    8.180
    0.090
    1.1%
  • OTVI.USA
    12,818.890
    -172.860
    -1.3%
  • DTS.USA
    5.811
    -0.009
    -0.2%
  • NTI.USA
    2.860
    0.000
    0%
  • NTID.USA
    2.900
    0.060
    2.1%
  • NTIDL.USA
    2.000
    0.060
    3.1%
  • OTRI.USA
    8.180
    0.090
    1.1%
  • OTVI.USA
    12,818.890
    -172.860
    -1.3%
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FreightWaves Classics/Infrastructure: Memphis Airport opened 93 years ago

In the years between World War I (when military airplanes first displayed their abilities to have an impact on war) and World War II, interest in flight was high. “Barnstorming” pilots and air exhibitions traveled across the nation, spurring interest in this new mode of travel. It was also the period when the nation’s first civilian airports were established. (To read a recent two-part article about the founding of San Francisco’s airport, follow this link and then this link.)  

The Memphis Municipal Airport was officially dedicated on June 14, 1929. Two years earlier Memphis Mayor Watkins Overton had created an airport planning commission. Among the commission’s key responsibilities was the selection of a site for the new airport. The commission chose Ward Farm, a 200-acre site located about seven miles from downtown Memphis. 

Memphis Municipal Airport in the late 1920s/early 1930s. (Photo: historic-memphis.com)
Memphis Municipal Airport in the late 1920s/early 1930s. (Photo: historic-memphis.com)

When the new Memphis Municipal Airport opened it consisted of “three hangars and an unpaved sod runway.”

The Air Corps News Letter of the U.S. War Department (a precursor of today’s U.S. Department of Defense) contained an article about the airport’s dedication. It noted that festivities surrounding the dedication featured flyovers of military airplanes from not only Tennessee but also Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Texas. At least 125 airplanes – both military and civilian – performed celebratory flyovers above the new airport during its inaugural weekend. 

The airport’s growth – 1930s-1950s

By 1930 the Memphis airport had its first lighted runway. As many as 15 passengers were arriving and departing from the airport on a daily basis. American Airways and Chicago & Southern Airlines were the first two commercial carriers that served the airport.

Meanwhile, members of the Airport Planning Commission traveled to Washington, D.C. on a regular basis in an effort to establish the Memphis airport as a stop on the U.S. airmail route. Their efforts paid off; the first official airmail letter arrived at the Memphis airport at 11:30 a.m. on June 15, 1931.  

The first air mail flight into Memphis was an American Airlines Ford Tri-Motor airplane. (Photo: historic-memphis.com)
The first air mail flight into Memphis was an American Airlines Ford Tri-Motor airplane. (Photo: historic-memphis.com)

To meet the demands of increased commercial passenger service, the airport’s first “modern” terminal was built in 1938. The following year four new carriers began service in Memphis –  Braniff, Capital, Eastern and Southern Airlines. In addition, the airlines began flying DC-3 airliners. 

Shortly after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entered World War II, the U.S. Army assumed control of the Memphis airport and its facilities. The airport was one of the hubs used to ferry aircraft on their journeys overseas. Military use of the airport temporarily halted any commercial airport expansion or progress; however, at the war’s conclusion airport officials began responding to the almost immediate growth in passenger travel. By 1947 the terminal built in 1938 was enlarged, while an airport master plan was drafted to improve the runways for the larger aircraft coming online. By 1949 six major airlines operated to and from Memphis.

Eastern Airlines served Memphis in 1939. (Photo: historic-memphis.com)
Eastern Airlines served Memphis in 1939. (Photo: historic-memphis.com)

In 1956 a new Airport Planning Commission began planning for a new terminal to bring the airport into the coming “jet age.” 

A new airport was dedicated and opened on Mud Island in 1959. It was owned by the city of Memphis and leased for private operation, and was the closest airport to a downtown location in the U.S. It catered primarily to business travelers, and its slogan was “You’re strictly uptown when you land downtown.” However, the Mud Island airport closed in 1964.

The 1960s

The new terminal that had been authorized in the mid-1950s was dedicated in 1963. It featured 22 gates, which provided space for seven airlines to operate daily flights. Concurrently, the name of the airport was changed to Memphis Metropolitan Airport. However, that name only lasted six years; the name was changed again in 1969 to Memphis International Airport, reflecting its status as an entry and departure point for international passengers and cargo.

The Memphis International Airport in the late 1960s/early 1970s. (Photo: travelcodex.com)
The Memphis International Airport main terminal in the late 1960s/early 1970s. (Photo: travelcodex.com)

The 1970s

Federal Express (now FedEx) was founded in 1971 in Little Rock, Arkansas. However, it moved its headquarters to Memphis in 1973. The company built a sorting facility and an administration building at the airport. The package-sorting complex, which is known as the “Super Hub,” as well as the company’s around-the-clock operations, combined later to make Memphis International the busiest cargo airport in the world for 18 consecutive years (1993-2009). 

This illustration shows the first FedEx sorting facility at the Memphis International Airport in the mid-1970s. (Illustration: FedEx)
This illustration shows the first FedEx sorting facility at the Memphis International Airport in the mid-1970s. (Illustration: FedEx)

The 1980s-1990s

Republic Airways chose Memphis in 1985 as one of its hub airports. That dramatically increased the airport’s passenger service count. In 1986 Republic was acquired by Northwest Airlines, which led to a series of construction projects at the airport because of the increase in flights and passengers. Among the projects were expanded baggage handling facilities, updated passenger waiting areas and amenity options, repaved runways, construction of a new maintenance complex and a new control tower. In addition, the Airport Authority completed work on a new master plan for the airport, which included building a third parallel north-south runway, as well as construction of a new international arrivals facility, which opened in 1995.  

Memphis International Airport in the late 1980s, when Northwest maintained a hub there. 
(Photo: Doug Bordelon/Pintrest)
Memphis International Airport in the late 1980s, when Northwest maintained a hub there.
(Photo: Doug Bordelon/Pintrest)

The 2000s

Delta Air Lines purchased Northwest Airlines in 2008. Because the Memphis and Atlanta airports are relatively close to each other and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is Delta’s “home” airport, it began to curtail service in Memphis. The KLM (a Delta partner) flight to Amsterdam was dropped in September 2012. In the fall of 2013 Delta officially dropped Memphis as one of its hubs.

The 2010s-now

In 2010 Memphis International Airport lost its top ranking in cargo to Hong Kong International Airport. Memphis remained the second-busiest international airport for cargo until 2020, when the surge in ecommerce (due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic and related stay-at-home restrictions) helped it regain the top position in that cargo category. Of course the vast majority of the cargo shipped to and from Memphis is on FedEx aircraft.

FedEx aircraft at the Memphis International Airport in 2018. (Photo: flymemphis.com)
FedEx aircraft at the Memphis International Airport in 2018. (Photo: flymemphis.com)

The loss of the Delta Air Lines hub led the airport’s governing authority to approve an incentive policy to make the facility more attractive to air service providers. As of now, the Memphis International Airport is served by the following airlines: Air Canada; American Airlines; Delta Air Lines; Frontier Airlines; JetBlue Airways; Qatar Airways; Spirit Airlines; and United Airlines. Of course, just like at other airports, this list could change on very short notice.

The FREIGHTWAVES TOP 500 For-Hire Carriers list includes FedEx (No. 1).

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.

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