A black and white photograph of the exterior of an airport, with a large crowd of people and an airplane in the foreground.
On June 26, 1945, spectators, public officials, and representatives from Trans World Airlines celebrated the opening of Northeast Philadelphia Airport, where commercial operations first resumed in the Philadelphia region near the end of World War II. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

Commercial aviation grew dramatically in the United States in the twentieth century, and a number of airports in the Philadelphia area grew to become regional centers of the industry. There was nothing assured or inevitable about this growth, however. It depended on the efforts of local political leaders, investments by the aviation companies, and state and federal aid.

Parks and racetracks served as the first landing areas for airplanes in Philadelphia, but by the late 1920s designated airfields dotted the city and surrounding region. While most were privately owned, the federal government established a flying field at the Philadelphia Navy Yard and a seaplane base on the Delaware River in Essington, Pennsylvania.  Just upstream from Essington in the Eastwick section of southwest Philadelphia, the city built its first municipal airport in 1926 to serve as a site of operations for a Pennsylvania National Guard squadron, a commercial flying service called the Ludington Exhibition Company, and the U.S. Post Office’s new airmail flights between Washington, D.C., and New York City.

photograph of several people holding model airplanes
To celebrate the opening of Philadelphia Municipal Airport on June 20, 1940, local hobbyists brought model planes to fly for the crowd. (

While the Eastwick field was soon deemed inadequate for Philadelphia’s needs, constructing a larger city-owned and -operated airport proved difficult.  Work began in 1931 on an expanded tract, which included the Eastwick property and land on adjacent Hog Island purchased from the federal government, but this project ground to a halt the next year, a victim of the Depression and a fiscally conservative mayor, J. Hampton Moore (1864-1950), who cut the city’s public works budget. Most flying activity, including the airmail service, had already shifted across the Delaware River to the less flood-prone Central Airport on Crescent Boulevard in Pennsauken, New Jersey, and  construction languished until 1936 when a new mayor, S. Davis Wilson (1881-1939), restarted the work with funds made available under the New Deal.  Although a laborer strike and a dispute between the city and the federal government over the location of a runway delayed completion, the new Philadelphia Municipal Airport officially opened in 1940.

A black and white aerial photograph of the Philadelphia Municipal Airport, showing main building, runways, and fields surrounding the land.
Constructed between 1936 and 1940, Philadelphia Municipal Airport had to discontinue commercial flights in 1943 due to military safety concerns. When the airport opened again in 1945, it soon became an international airport as European travel restrictions were lifted after World War II. (

When the United States entered World War II, military operations at area airports increased.  Philadelphia Municipal Airport and the Greater Wilmington Airport in New Castle County, Delaware, served as Army Air Corps bases, and Mercer Airport near Trenton functioned as a test site for Navy planes built at a nearby plant. The government also purchased a few privately owned airfields during the war. One in Northeast Philadelphia was improved and donated to the city in 1944, while another in Montgomery County, Willow Grove Naval Air Station, would remain an active military facility for decades after the war.

Postwar Aviation Boom

With the war’s end, commercial aviation in the United States boomed, and the City of Philadelphia worked to make its municipal airport a part of the growing industry.  It renamed the facility Philadelphia International and turned to the federal government for money to help build longer runways and a larger terminal. Before 1946, the U.S. government funded municipal airport development on an ad hoc basis, via New Deal work relief programs and wartime national defense projects.  In 1946, though, Congress established a grant program to subsidize construction and renovation and thereby promote a national network of airports. Federal grants became a continuous source of funding for airport construction from the late 1940s into the twenty-first  century and helped fund a new international airport on Hog Island that opened in December 1953.

In the 1950s, Philadelphia International gained more flights to other cities in the United States and abroad.  City leaders also campaigned to terminate the leases of the National Guard and air force reserve squadrons based at the international airport, believing they impeded commercial flying operations. Military leaders offered to pay for an expansion of the Northeast Philadelphia Airport if their units could operate there, but the city rejected the idea and the units eventually relocated to Willow Grove Naval Air Station in the early 1960s. The Mercer County and New Castle County fields served less controversially as homes to National Guard squadrons in the decades after World War II  and, along with the Northeast Philadelphia Airport, supported business aviation, charter and recreational flying, and light manufacturing.

A black and white photograph of taxis and cars in front of an air port terminal.
Along with expanding the number of runways and terminals for more passengers and flights, Philadelphia International Airport had to drastically change how people negotiated the airport. New parking garages, public transportation options, and multi-lane arrival and departure roads eased some of the stresses involved with traveling. This scene of pre-improvement congestion is from 1978. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

By the mid-1960s, traffic at Philadelphia International had reached record levels, and officials decided it would have to be expanded to accommodate future growth.  With financial support from the state and federal governments, the city began construction of new runways, terminals, parking lots, and a SEPTA regional rail line connecting the airport to Center City.  While the investments were welcome, their management drew heavy criticism in the 1970s because of delays, cost overruns, and revelations that city and political party officials had accepted bribes from construction firms bidding on contracts.  Some critics called on Philadelphia to cede its control of the airport to an independent authority that they said would manage it impartially and in the best interests of the whole metropolitan region, but city leaders successfully resisted the idea.

When Congress voted in 1978 to deregulate the airline industry by abolishing the Civil Aeronautics Board, the airline business and the business of airport management both changed.  For forty years, the CAB had dictated who could start an airline, what cities it could serve, and what fares it could charge. After 1978, market competition answered these questions and cities assumed more direct responsibility for attracting airlines to their airports.  Greater competition encouraged airlines to establish hubs—specific airports where they concentrated their operations— and cities competed for hub status to gain more flights, jobs, and revenues.  Deregulation also allowed low-cost carriers to proliferate. These airlines usually provided fewer amenities and routes but offered travelers lower fares and helped offset the inflationary effect a larger carrier operating a hub at the same airport tended to have on ticket prices.

Hub for US Airways and UPS

While the 1980s and 1990s were a volatile time for the industry as airlines grappled with the realities of deregulation and many new and long-established carriers went out of business, traffic at Philadelphia International generally increased. The airport became a hub for US Airways and United Parcel Service, attracted service from a number of low-cost carriers, and saw new facilities develop to handle growing airplane, passenger, and automobile traffic.  This expansion sparked conflicts with neighboring communities like Delaware County’s Tinicum Township, in which much of the airport lay, over property tax payments and plane noise.

In the early twenty-first century, discount airlines began flying from some of Greater Philadelphia’s smaller regional airports.  With reduced operating costs and less tenant demand, the fields charged airlines lower rents and landing fees, making them compatible with the budget airline business model, and the airports’ locations along limited-access freeways made them accessible to area travelers.  The Atlantic City, Mercer County (now Trenton-Mercer), and New Castle County (now Wilmington-Philadelphia) airports all gained new service from discount airlines in this period.

A black and white photograph of two people next to a helicopter near the northeast Philadelphia airport.
In 1982, Italian helicopter manufacturer Agusta opened a facility adjacent to Northeast Philadelphia Airport. Technicians used the nearby airfield for testing and training flights. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

Global demand for private jets and civilian helicopters grew after 1980, and a number of aircraft companies established assembly and maintenance facilities at area airports during that time.  AgustaWestland, an Italian-British helicopter builder, opened a shop at Northeast Philadelphia Airport in 1982 that later expanded into a manufacturing facility; Dassault Aviation of France established a maintenance, repair, and overhaul station for its business jets at Wilmington-Philadelphia Airport in 2000; and in 2007, American firm Sikorsky began assembling helicopters in a plant at the Chester County Airport in Coatesville, Pennsylvania.

State and local governments helped entice these companies with tax breaks and construction financing. The fields also offered manufacturers less air traffic and lower rents than large commercial airports; proximity to deep-water ports, interstate highways, and railroads; and an established supply chain and skilled labor pool, thanks to Boeing’s long-time presence as a helicopter builder in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania.

By the early twenty-first century, many of Greater Philadelphia’s airports were regional centers of the world’s commercial aviation industries. While globalization led to the loss of traditional industrial jobs in the area, it fostered new employment, including manufacturing and mechanical jobs, at the airports. The growth of the local aviation economy was not an inevitable consequence of globalization, however.  Intentional policies of development and investment, both public and private, made it possible.

Demian Larry is a Ph.D. candidate in American history at Temple University.  His dissertation is about the politics and economics of airport development in Philadelphia. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2015, Rutgers University


Philadelphia Airport, Opening Day

In 1925, air travel was relatively new and Philadelphia took its first steps toward an airport when it allowed the Pennsylvania National Guard to use land in Southwest Philadelphia. By 1930, the city had purchased the Hog Island Shipyard from the federal government with plans to expand the existing airfield. After facing construction delays during the Great Depression, the Philadelphia Municipal Airport opened on June 20, 1940, and became an international airport in 1945. This photograph is from the opening-day ceremonies, during which model planes were flown. Over the twentieth century, the airport underwent multiple renovations and additions, a pattern that continues in the twenty-first century.

Philadelphia Municipal Airport

The closure of the Hog Island Shipyard in 1921 left the site largely abandoned until the City of Philadelphia purchased it for three million dollars in 1930. The construction there of Philadelphia Municipal Airport did not begin until 1936, when additional dredge spoils were added to level out the land before runway or building construction could occur. This aerial view shows the airport just after it opened in 1940. The facility became an "international airport" when the American Overseas Airline company chartered flights directly to England and other western European countries in 1945. Numerous expansions later in the twentieth century pushed the airport to cover most of the land that originally made up Hog Island.

Opening of Northeast Philadelphia Airport

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Using a private airfield as its starting point, the U.S. Army began work on an airport near modern Grant Avenue and Academy Road in Northeast Philadelphia during World War II, but gave the land to the City of Philadelphia in 1944 after initial runway and foundations construction. Within a year, the city paved the runways and built an administration building and hangars for commercial airlines. In this photo, Philadelphia Mayor Bernard Samuel, City Council members, Trans World Airlines representatives, and hundreds of spectators celebrated the opening of Northeast Philadelphia Airport on June 26, 1945.

Taxi and Traffic at the Philadelphia International Airport

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

The expansion of Philadelphia International Airport in the latter half of the twentieth century increased the total number of airlines and daily flights, which also drastically changed the amount of traffic that flowed to the airport. Construction of additional airport terminals in the 1960s and 1970s increased traffic congestion on roads adjacent to arrival and departure points. The line of taxis outside the Allegheny Airlines arrival terminal pictured here in 1978 shows the limited space drivers had to contend with at the airport. In 1986, the airport finished a multiyear project that doubled the number of lanes leading to arrival and departure terminals, separated commercial and private transportation routes into the airport, and created more short-term parking.

National Guard at Philadelphia International Airport

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Depicted in flight gear scrambling toward their planes, members of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard (111th Fighter Bomber Group), pictured here in April 1955, were photographed in a mobilization test at Philadelphia International Airport. The 111th was established during World War II as the 391st Bombardment Group, but by 1946 the group was renamed and became part of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. The airport housed the 111th's fleet of bomber jets and aircraft until 1963, when the unit relocated to Willow Grove Naval Air Station.

Agusta Helicopter

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

In 1982, the Italian helicopter builder Agusta opened a manufacturing and repair facility directly north of Northeast Philadelphia Airport. Agusta technicians built a variety of helicopters for American clients, who could then take test or training flights on the Northeast airfield. This 1988 photograph shows Agusta technicians repairing a civilian variant of Agusta's popular A109 helicopter, the A109 Mk. II. After Agusta merged with British helicopter manufacturer Westland in 2000, the company expanded its Philadelphia facility to produce more helicopters annually and made it the company's U.S. headquarters in 2005.

Atlantic City Airport

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Atlantic City International Airport originally opened as a naval air station in 1942 for training pilots and practicing with aerial weaponry. The airport was sold to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 1958 for aviation research, but the city of Atlantic City retained one terminal building to host commercial airlines and charter flights. The Atlantic City terminal was expanded in the 1970s and 1980s, increasing the number of commercial airlines that brought tourists and gamblers to the Atlantic City Boardwalk, pictured here in 1977. The South Jersey Transportation Authority took control of the airport in 1991 and purchased the surrounding runways and land from the FAA in 1998. Throughout the 2000s, the airport terminal was expanded to host a larger variety of commercial airlines. As of 2015, Spirit Airlines was the only regularly scheduled commercial airline to use the Atlantic City International Airport.

Weather Instruments at the Northeast Philadelphia Airport

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

With acres of open land, a limited number of tall buildings or trees, and only slight disruptions from planes or the occasional vehicle, airport runways provide the ideal conditions for meteorologists or climatology scientists to examine changes in weather. Instruments to determine temperature, wind speed and direction, precipitation accumulation, barometric pressure, and a variety of other technical observations are located in most major airports in the country, including Philadelphia International and Northeast Philadelphia Airports. Modern climate instruments automatically send the most recent weather changes to local news forecasters and national weather services, but instruments in the 1940s had to be read manually by professionals stationed at the airport. Dwight Rigney of the Weather Bureau (now the National Weather Service) is pictured in this 1945 image examining recently installed weather instruments on top of the Northeast Philadelphia Airport control tower.

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Related Reading

Bednarek, Janet R. Daly.  America’s Airports:  Airfield Development, 1918-1947.  College Station:  Texas A&M University Press, 2001.

Sheth, Jagdish N., Fred C. Allvine, Can Uslay, and Ashutosh Dixit.  Deregulation and Competition:  Lessons from the Airline Industry.  Thousand Oaks:  Sage Publications Inc., 2007.

Smith, Frank Kingston and James P. Harrington, Aviation and Pennsylvania.  Philadelphia: Franklin Institute Press, 1981.

Trimble, William F.  High Frontier:  A History of Aeronautics in Pennsylvania.  Pittsburgh:  University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982.

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