The first scheduled airline operations in Tennessee began on December 1, 1925, when a route between Atlanta and Evansville included a stop in Chattanooga. For the next ten years, however, air traffic and airports grew slowly in Tennessee. In 1932, during the Great Depression, the state had twenty-three airports and landing fields, but these consisted at best of a hangar or two, a tiny terminal, and often, sod runways. The federal government, through the New Deal agencies of the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), provided the funding and labor to bring Tennessee’s airports into the modern age of aviation. Across the state, the CWA began seventeen projects which the WPA later brought to completion. By 1939, new airports were already operating at Cookeville, Jackson, Jellico, Lebanon, and Milan. The WPA also funded five major airports at Memphis, Chattanooga, Nashville, Knoxville, and McKellar Field (now Tri-City Airport), which stood in a rural location between Kingsport, Johnson City, and Bristol. The WPA state administrator was World War I veteran Colonel Harry S. Berry, who was keenly interested in updating and expanding Tennessee’s air transportation system.
Airports have multiplied across the state since the depression. At the time of its bicentennial, Tennessee had eighty-nine public airports, with funding, construction, and maintenance provided by the Tennessee Department of Transportation, which is advised, in turn, by the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission. Almost every county seat is within easy access of an airport. Yet the five major airports of the New Deal era remain the busiest and largest terminals for freight and passenger traffic, with the Memphis and Nashville airports being the most important.
Aviation took center stage in Memphis’s transportation history in 1927. Encouraged by the Memphis Aero Club, which had been established in 1925, Watkins Overton made the construction of a Memphis airport a major issue in his mayoral campaign of 1927. After his election Overton quickly appointed five municipal airport planning commissioners who selected an airport site on the two-hundred-acre Ward Farm located about 7.5 miles southeast of downtown Memphis. On June 15, 1929, the Memphis Municipal Airport opened for business. Though its rudimentary operation consisted of a sod field runway and three small hangars, more than two hundred planes and pilots flew in to celebrate its opening. That fall the stock market crash dampened the demand for passenger services. In 1930, for example, only fifteen passengers were arriving and departing Memphis on a daily basis. But air mail and air freight kept the airport open; the major carriers were American Airways and Chicago & South. The first improvements came in 1934, when three asphalt diagonal runways were constructed. In 1937-38, the New Deal chipped in with needed improvements as the WPA built a new terminal and generally modernized the airport facilities and infrastructure.
With the many military-related activities in Memphis during World War II, the U.S. Army assumed administration of the municipal airport. As soon as the military relinquished its control at war’s end, local officials moved quickly to respond to increased demands for passenger travel, especially on the technologically advanced Douglas DC-3 airplane. In 1947 the terminal was enlarged, and the city implemented a master plan to improve the runways for larger, faster planes. By 1949 at least six major carriers were landing planes in Memphis.
The 1950s witnessed steady growth in the amount of freight and passenger traffic handled by the Memphis airport, and the facility reached the benchmark of one million passengers in 1959. Four years later, on June 7, 1963, the city dedicated a new terminal which–for its $5.5 million cost–provided twenty-two airplane gates for seven competing airlines. Architect Roy Harrover’s contemporary New Formalism-style design for the facility received national recognition by the American Institute of Architects.
Memphis air travel achieved international status in 1969 when the terminal became a point of origin and entry for international passenger and freight traffic. At that time officials created the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority to administer the quickly expanding facility. Within ten years the airport’s terminal capacity doubled, and the authority constructed a new runway for wide-bodied jets, an International Flights terminal, and a new control tower.
A major impetus for the airport expansion came from Federal Express, which began in Memphis in 1973. As the freight service corporation boomed over the next twenty years, Memphis became one of the nation’s busiest cargo airports. Federal Express has steadily reinvested in its Memphis facilities, including building a $36 million Aircraft Maintenance Facility that opened in 1995. Four years later, United Parcel Service opened an advanced package sorting facility which processes more than 250,000 items daily. Passenger service has grown as well in the past generation. In 1985 Republic Airlines designated Memphis as a regional hub, a designation the airport retained when Republic merged with the much larger Northwest Airlines the following year. The airport’s future development was outlined in a new master plan produced in 1986 which called for a new International Flights terminal (opened in 1995) and a third parallel runway (completed in late 1996). The planned World Runway, 11,100 feet in length, opened in late 2000.
The first airfield in Nashville was Hampton Field, which operated until 1921, when it was replaced by Blackwood Field in the Hermitage community, which operated from 1921 to 1928. McConnell Field was open from 1928 to 1939, but much of Nashville’s air traffic shifted to the Sky Harbour Airport, an isolated rural location in neighboring Rutherford County along the newly completed Dixie Highway. Both American and Eastern airlines landed planes at Sky Harbour. This airport served the city from 1929 until the 1937 opening of the modern Berry Field airport (named in honor of Col. Berry), also adjacent to the Dixie Highway, in southern Davidson County.
Berry Field was one of the region’s first major WPA airport projects. This 340-acre field had a three-story terminal, a control tower, and paved runway. During World War II the army enlarged the field to over fifteen hundred acres as it served as home base for the Fourth Ferrying Command, a key clearing station for military aircraft. Once civilian control was restored in 1946, Nashville began aggressively to expand its services. By 1958 plans for a new terminal were underway, and two years later passenger jet service arrived in the city.
In 1961 officials opened a new 145,900-square-foot terminal with a modern control tower that boasted state-of-the-art electronics. In 1963 the existing runway was extended by eight hundred feet, and construction began on a second runway. Metropolitan government officials created the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority in 1970, and it continues to operate the airport today. Under the authority’s administration, Berry Field experienced a second major expansion in 1977, when the terminal was renovated and enlarged; the airport now totaled 3,300 acres with three modern runways.
From 1984-87 the authority constructed a new terminal in reaction to regional growth and the news that American Airlines had designated Nashville as a traffic hub for its system. By 1986 Nashville offered 144 daily flights to thirty-seven cities, a level of traffic which severely taxed the older terminal. But on September 14, 1987, the Nashville Metropolitan Airport Terminal opened for business, alleviating the overcrowded situation. Designed by Robert Lamb Hart in association with Gresham, Smith and Partners, the terminal has forty-six gates and three concourses that radiate from an architecturally distinctive three-story atrium. In the mid-1990s American Airlines officially closed its Nashville hub, but other companies such as Southwest Airlines took over many of the American gates.
The growth of the airports at Nashville and Memphis is associated with general industry patterns that reflect the impact of airline deregulation in the late 1970s. Larger metropolitan airports have prospered, often to the detriment of nearby municipal airports. That is certainly the case in Tennessee. Knoxville and Chattanooga maintain modern facilities but face tough competition for flights from the much larger airports at Nashville and Atlanta. The McGhee-Tyson Airport, operated by the Metropolitan Knoxville Airport Authority, has fared best. It contains more than two thousand acres with parallel nine-thousand-foot runways. Seven major passenger carriers, with 120 arrivals and departures daily, operate at the airport. Due to the construction of a $9.3 million Air Cargo Complex in 1991, freight traffic has expanded significantly in recent years. The Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport at Lovell Field began as a New Deal project in the 1930s. The first major expansion of the terminal came twenty years later, when a new modern terminal was built in 1964. In 1985 authority over the airport passed to the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport Authority. It began construction of a new terminal in 1992 and completed a $20.5 million expansion and improvement of its facilities by the mid-1990s. Four major passenger carriers and commuter lines operated twenty-seven daily departures from the Chattanooga airport in 2000.