"Newark Airport keeps rolling
Wednesday, October 01, 2003
Aviation pioneers Lindbergh and Earhart flew from its runways.
The world's first air traffic control center was built there.
PeopleExpress ushered in an age of discount fares from the old North Terminal in the early 1980s, and Continental Airlines made the hub the region's busiest from the new Terminal C in the late 1990s.
On Oct. 1, 1928 -- 75 years ago today -- operations officially began at what was originally called Newark Municipal Airport, a hub built on 68 acres of marshland at the behest of municipal officials.
"They said, 'We've got to get an airport, get in on the air age,'" said Dave Morris, the airport's historian. "They got the jump."
Today, at what is now Newark Liberty International Airport, Gov. James E. McGreevey will mark the anniversary by leading a low-key ceremony in the refurbished original terminal, a 1935 art deco structure with a vintage control tower that is now the airport's administration building.
Since its opening, Newark Airport has been a place of firsts.
Along with the first control tower, the airport claims the world's first paved runway, first lighted runway and first passenger terminal.
It has also had its dark moments.
On Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists hijacked United Airlines Flight 93, which had departed from Terminal A en route to San Francisco. The plane, which authorities said was likely being diverted to crash into a Washington, D.C., landmark, plummeted into a Pennsylvania field after passengers stormed the cockpit.
Not long after it opened, Newark Airport quickly became the world's busiest, serving 90,000 passengers in 1931 and 350,000 seven years later. In the early 1940s, the Army Air Corps took over the airport for the duration of World War II
. In 1948, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey assumed control and continues to run the airport today.
Last year, 29.2 million passengers flew into and out of Newark, making it the nation's 12th busiest hub.
"It's grown as America has grown. And it's grown as the Port Authority has grown," Port Authority Chairman Anthony Coscia said, citing the agency's $3.8 billion investment in the complex over the past five years. "That airport has found a way to keep pace with those changes."
Seventy-five years ago, Newark Airport's primary mission was transporting mail, not flying people.
"Air mail started this whole thing," said William DeCota, the Port Authority's aviation director.
During the 1930s, mail was trucked from Manhattan across the Pulaski Skyway to Newark Airport. By 1938, planes there were hauling 5 million pounds of mail a year. Soon after, however, New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia won a power struggle between the city and New Jersey and the air mail depot was moved to a fledgling Queens airport that would one day bear his name.
Among the earliest planes to use Newark Airport were Ford Tri-Motors and Curtiss Condors, Morris said, noting that pilots landed on a cinder runway affectionately known as "the cinder patch." Then came the two-engine Boeing 247, which carried 10 passengers, and the all-metal DC-3, which held 21 passengers, "unheard of for that time," he said.
Morris recalled making trips to the airport as a boy and seeing the DC-3, which was used by American Airlines in 1936 for the Newark-to-Chicago run.
"I couldn't believe it had curtains on the windows," said Morris, who later spent 36 years at the airport for the Port Authority. "It was like flying from your living room."
An airport legend, William "Whitey" Conrad, who died in 2000 at the age of 95, pioneered air traffic control at Newark Airport, beginning with two flags -- red and green -- as he stood atop a wooden tower directing pilots next to the airport's hangar.
"It was a half-assed operation, but it worked," Conrad said in a 1996 interview.
He even found romance at the airport.
"I was on the second floor of the building, and he used to come in front of the doors, eating an ice cream cone," said his widow, 91-year-old Catherine Conrad, who did payroll for a company based at the historic art deco terminal. "He used to come in front of the doors, eating an ice cream cone."
"Whitey" Conrad retired in the 1960s as chief of the airport's fourth control tower -- a 147-foot structure that was in use until May of this year. He lived to see the blueprints for the new $22.4 million concrete tower that rises 325 feet.
As the control towers grew taller, the number of passengers using Newark Airport also grew. Close to 7 million people a year used the airport by the 1970s, but the number of passengers really took off in the 1980s and 1990s with the advent of PeopleExpress and Continental. Aided by relatively easy accessibility, the number of fliers peaked at 34.2 million in 2000 before the recession and 9/11. In 2001, Newark scored a regional first -- an AirTrain monorail service.
Princeton University professor Jameson Doig, who wrote "Empire on the Hudson," a history of the Port Authority, said the airport has helped both the state's image and its economy.
"Newark Airport became even more important for the whole region than had been anticipated," Doig said, crediting the Port Authority for wise investments that spurred its growth. "Newark Airport ... brings credit to an agency that is often criticized."
Looking to the future, DeCota, the aviation director, said the goal is to increase the number of fliers by 50 percent, to 45 million, over the next 15 years, while also increasing air cargo by 50 percent.
Such growth, however, faces constraints by the airport's limited size.
"The challenge for us is how to get 45 million passengers through an airport that's only 2,000 acres," said DeCota, who envisions higher capacity planes and moving more nonessential services such as parking off-site eventually. "The challenge for us is to maximize the horizontal geography of Newark Airport."
Ron Marsico covers Newark Liberty International Airport. He can be reached at email@example.com or (973) 392-7860.