When New Orleans’ airport was the biggest in the country
It’s not every day that a genuine war hero comes to town. So, when Gen. James “Jimmy” Doolittle — he of the historic Doolittle Raids on Tokyo during World War II– visited New Orleans in January 1946 to dedicate what was billed at the time as the largest commercial airport in the country, he was greeted by a massive military parade through the city. The next day, on Jan. 13, 1946, Doolittle officially opened Moisant International Airport — a former WWII air base that would in 1960 be renamed New Orleans International Airport — for commercial use. Just like that, New Orleans was ready for takeoff. “Your geographical position and the facilities erected here will make this city truly the air hub of the Americas,” Doolittle said.
While it has yet to become that “air hub of the Americas” predicted by Doolittle, the airport — renamed Louis Armstrong International Airport in 2001 — is no slouch. In 2015, passenger traffic topped 10 million. A new 35-gate, $993 million terminal is under construction and expected to be completed by February 2019. “We are growing at a record pace,” Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in January, noting that 17 airlines use the airport to deliver passengers to 59 non-stop destinations, including seven international locales.
- The airport, which is located in the suburb of Kenner, was originally named after aviation pioneer John Bevins Moisant, who died in 1910 in an air crash near Harahan. The crash site eventually became cattle fields, leading to airport’s IATA code of MSY — for Moisant Stock Yards — and which is still used to identify the airport today.
- Attendees at the 1946 airport dedication were given free flights over the city, “but in the afternoon the flights were called off because of the thousands of automobiles and visitors on the runways,” according to The Times-Picayune.
- An array of military and civilian aircraft were also put on display as part of the opening ceremonies. In addition, a contingent of Marines staged an “invasion of Kenner” from the Mississippi River, a display that included dive bombing, flame throwers, bazookas, machine guns and 1,000 pounds of TNT, “which rocked the levee as it was detonated ahead of the invaders,” The Times-Picayune reported the next day.
- It took until May 1, 1946, before the airport was in full operation. At that time, there were 50 daily flights. Within a month, that number had jumped to 74.
- Before Moisant opened as a civilian airport, local commercial air traffic was based out of Lakefront Airport. By the 1930s, it was clear the city needed a bigger airport, but expansion wasn’t fiscally possible at the Lakefront site. A groundbreaking for the new airport in Kenner was held in November 1941, but before construction could begin, Pearl Harbor was bombed and the United States entered World War II, prompting the Navy to take over the new site for use as a military airfield.
- After the war, the federal government turned over its military airfield to the city. Consequently, when it opened to commercial use, even the airport’s main terminal was housed in a no-frills military-style hangar.
- The airport was constructed at an initial cost of $3 million. Covering 1,360 acres, it was four times the size of New Orleans Lakefront Airport and twice the size of LaGuardia Field in New York.
- A new terminal building — designed by the New Orleans architectural firms Goldstein, Parham and Labouisse, and Benson and Riehl — was opened in November 1959 during the administration of deLesseps “Chep” Morrison. That $7.5 million building, with its distinctive parabolic arch, still serves as the core of the airport today.
- Two additional concourses were added as part of a 1972 addition, bringing the total number of gates to 42.
- On Feb. 15, 1960, the airport entered “the jet age,” when the first passenger jet in the airport’s history touched down, arriving from Los Angeles. An Eastern Airlines DC-8B it carried 118 passengers when fully loaded and traveled at a speed of 600 mph. The plane left for Miami with 65 New Orleanians on board — including Mayor Morrison.
- According to the airport’s website, Louis Armstrong International had the distinction of being the busiest airport in the world for three days in 2005, but for an entirely regrettable reason: evacuating the city’s populace before and after Hurricane Katrina.
New Orleans’ airport is no longer the country’s biggest. Neither is it the busiest (unless you’re trying to leave on Ash Wednesday or the day after a local Super Bowl). While cynics might bemoan that as a sign of opportunities lost from the airport’s heady early days, that mid-range size makes Louis Armstrong International a far easier and lower-stress place to travel out of than the LaGuardias, Hartsfields and LAX’s of the world. And as any local can tell you: It’s an even better place to come home to.