History of Miami International Airport

The story of the gateway to Latin America.

  In 1927 executives at Pan American Airways decided to move their company’s base of operations from Key West to Miami.  They purchased 116 acres along NW 36th Street (south of Miami Springs) from the Seminole Fruit and Land Company for the purpose of building an airport.

  When completed in 1928 the airfield boasted a passenger terminal, two hard surfaced runways and two hangars.  The $50,000 terminal building (designed by the New York architectural firm of Delano and Aldrich) was the first passenger facility of its type to become operational in the United States.  The two-story reinforced-concrete structure had numerous large windows and a spacious nautical-themed interior with a high-dome ceiling.  All passenger-related functions and amenities were contained within the lower level.  Offices and a balcony with an excellent view of the airfield were situated above.                       

  Scheduled services began on September 15, 1928 when Captain Edwin Musick piloted a Sikorsky-38 on the inaugural flight to Havana via Key West.  Charles Lindbergh attended the official dedication ceremony that was held on January 9, 1929.  Later that day he flew a Sikorsky S-38 on the inaugural flight to San Juan.

  Pan American Field handled 8,600 passengers and 20 tons of freight during its first year of operation.  In 1930 Pan American embarked in a fleet conversion program with the objective of becoming an all flying boat airline.  By January 1932 the carrier had completed the transition and was operating solely from the newly acquired Dinner Key Seaplane Terminal.  Pan American Field continued to remain active as a maintenance base for the Sikorsky S-38 fleet.

  During the mid 1930s the facility became known as the 36th Street Airport when other carriers relocated there from the old Miami Municipal Airport.  Eastern Airlines commenced scheduled service in 1934 with direct flights to Atlanta and New York.  National Airlines followed in 1936 with direct flights to St Petersburg.

  Pan American invested $1.5-million in infrastructure during the early 1940s doubling the size of the terminal and building two large hangars capable of accommodating large piston-engine airliners like the Douglas DC-6.

  In 1943 the U.S. Corps of Engineers completed the adjacent Miami Army Airport.  Part of the base contained a busy aircraft maintenance and overhaul center.  The Miami Air Depot (situated on the west side of the airfield) became an important gateway for troops and equipment bound for Africa and Europe.  The facility was also busy with flight training and during the height of the war 114,000 pilots received instruction there. 

  Cubana de Aviacion became the first international operator to serve the airport in May 1945 when it initiated scheduled flights to Havana.  Delta Airlines launched scheduled service on December 1st with flights to Atlanta via Jacksonville.

  The newly created Dade County Port Authority (Miami-Dade Aviation Department) acquired the 223-acre facility in 1946 for $2.5-million obtained through the first Airport Revenue Bond Issue in the United States.  That same year the adjacent 102-acre Convair Plant was purchased with $700,000 loaned by Eastern and National Airlines moved into an open-air maintenance base (now George T. Baker Aviation School) adjoining the east side of the airfield.

  In 1948 the name Miami International Airport was adopted.  The Port Authority acquired the adjacent Miami Army Airport and the 262-acre Davis tract was purchased with $1-million worth of federal aid.  The following year the Seaboard Railroad tracks and yards bisecting the airport were removed at a total cost of $3-million.  By 1951 the airfield had grown to cover 2,878 acres as a result of additional land purchases and annexations.

  The Air Force set up a base on the west side of the airfield in 1949.  This facility became the home of a search-rescue squadron and several reserve troop transports.  In 1959 the operation was closed when the aircraft were relocated to the Homestead Air Force Base.

  Miami International Airport handled 1.4-million passengers and an average of 900 daily flights in 1950.  During this period Eastern Airlines moved into a temporary shed-like terminal, which was later expanded with the addition of a two-story concrete building and two concourses.  Congestion soon became a serious problem at both terminals and planning began on a large mid-field facility to be built between the airport’s main runways.  In 1955 $21-million in revenue bonds were issued to finance the construction of the new terminal complex and other related improvements.

  Eastern, National Airlines and Pan American would become MIA’s predominant carriers over the following decades developing significant route networks from Miami.  Eastern Airlines dominated the market east of the Mississippi River and offered frequent flights to the Caribbean.  National Airlines become a major player along the East Coast and later the Sunbelt.  Pan American was the principal international carrier with plenty of flights to the Caribbean and South America.  Each of these carriers would in time construct huge maintenance bases and office buildings at MIA. 

  Throughout the 1950s the Civil Aeronautics Board generously awarded new route certificates to several carriers allowing them to establish service.  Braniff International Airways began scheduled service in 1951 with flights to Panama.  Northeast Airlines commenced scheduled service on January 9, 1957 with flights to Boston via New York.  Capital Airlines initiated scheduled service on December 14, 1958 with flights to Buffalo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Rochester.  Trans World Airlines launched scheduled service on January 12, 1959 with flights to St Louis.  Northwest Airlines started scheduled service on September 27th with flights to Minneapolis/St Paul via Chicago.

  In 1954 a gigantic $5-million maintenance hangar was completed (by Bethlehem Steel) for Eastern Airlines.  The 448,748 square-foot building had a T-shaped configuration and could simultaneously service fourteen Lockheed Super Constellation airliners in open-air service bays.  Two additional airliners could be accommodated within an adjacent totally enclosed hangar.  Offices, overhaul shops, stock rooms and a warehouse were among the hangar’s many outstanding features.                  

  National Airlines moved into a beautiful MiMo-style base on the east side of Miami International Airport during 1957.  A unique cantilever-type hangar capable of servicing six Douglas DC-8 jetliners became operational in May.  Two months later 600 employees moved into a nearby 88,000 square-foot executive office building.

  National Airlines operated the first domestic turbojet flight on December 10, 1958 when it placed a Boeing 707 (leased from Pan American) on the Miami-New York run.  On January 25, 1959 Eastern Airlines followed by operating the world’s first Lockheed L-188 Electra flight on the same route.

  The 20th Street Terminal was officially dedicated on February 1, 1959.  At the time the MiMo-style building was the largest passenger terminal in the world.  The Centralized-type facility consisted of a horseshoe-shaped central core, an administration building, a two-level roadway, five concourses and a post office.  The following year a 270-room soundproof hotel with a rooftop restaurant welcomed travelers.  Construction work continued until the completion of a parking deck and Jet-Age concourse in 1961.

  Thirty-two scheduled airlines and 67 non-scheduled carriers served Miami International Airport in 1960 transporting 4.2-million passengers.  On June 11, 1961 National Airlines inaugurated turbine-powered flights to Houston, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, New Orleans, San Diego and San Francisco.  United began scheduled service on July 1st as a result of its merger with Capital Airlines.

  In 1960 $19-million in Revenue Bonds were issued for the completion of various construction projects.  During that year Delta Airlines moved into an open-air hangar adjacent to the 20th Street Terminal.  Runway 09L-27R (currently 08R-26L) was lengthened to 10,500 feet in 1961 allowing transcontinental jet service.  On January 23, 1963 the $17,250,000 Eastern Airlines jet-maintenance base became operational and was the largest of its type in the world.  Several months later runway 09R-27L (currently 09-27) was lengthened from 8,400 to 9,400 feet and the Pan American Administration Building (a replica of the United States Embassy in New Delhi) was completed at the site of the old 36th Street Terminal.

  Delta’s first Convair 880 set a transcontinental speed record of three hours and thirty-one minutes on February 10, 1960 while flying between San Diego and Miami on a delivery flight.  On February 1, 1964 Eastern Airlines operated the world’s first Boeing 727 flight on the Philadelphia-Washington DC-Miami route.

  Eastern, National Airlines and Pan American introduced wide-body Jumbo-Jet service during the early 1970s.  National Airlines inaugurated Boeing 747 flights on October 2, 1970 and McDonnell Douglas DC-10 service on December 15, 1971.  Eastern Airlines operated the world’s first Lockheed L-1011 flight between Miami and New York on August 26, 1972. 

  In order to accommodate the larger aircraft new facilities were constructed.  Eastern Airlines built a hangar to service its Lockheed L-1011 fleet and expanded its terminal facilities.  In 1974 the National Airlines Maintenance/Administration Building (now American Airlines Hangar) become operational.  The $24-million facility could simultaneously service three McDonnell Douglas DC-10 jetliners.  In 1977 the International-Satellite Terminal was opened to scheduled airline service and runway 09R-27L was lengthened to 13,000 feet.

  The 1970s marked a period of tremendous growth in passenger traffic.  Twelve million passengers and 750,000 tons of freight passed through Miami International Airport in 1975. 

  Several operators were awarded routes to MIA during the decade.  Air Florida began scheduled service on September 28, 1972 with flights to St Petersburg.  Southern Airlines commenced scheduled service in 1974 with flights to Grand Cayman and Orlando.  Western Airlines initiated scheduled service on October 1, 1976 with McDonnell Douglas DC-10 flights to Los Angeles.  Continental and Piedmont Airlines launched scheduled service in 1977.  Deregulation allowed regional carriers like North Central and Ozark Airlines to start scheduled service in 1978.  American Airlines followed on January 29, 1979 with service to Dallas/Ft Worth and San Juan.

  National Airlines was awarded several trans Atlantic routes to Europe during the 1970s.  Scheduled flights to London were started on June 15, 1970 using Douglas DC-8 jetliners.  On June 22, 1977 flights to Paris were established employing McDonnell Douglas DC-10 airliners.  Amsterdam and Frankfurt were added to the route map on May 1, 1978.

  On December 13, 1977 Eastern Airlines introduced the Airbus A-300 to South Florida travelers on the Miami-New York route.

  The 1980s began with a new wave of airport expansion projects.  In 1980 a Westinghouse People Mover System commenced transporting passengers between the International Satellite and 20th Street Terminal.  Several years later Concourse B (Eastern) was doubled in size and connected to a new federal inspection center.  Concourses D (Eastern) and E (Pan Am) were completely rebuilt.  Concourse F was expanded to house Pan American’s busy international hub.  Pedestrian bridges equipped with moving walkways were constructed linking the 20th Street Terminal’s concourses and parking garages.  Runway 12-30 was completely rebuilt and a tunnel (connecting the passenger and cargo terminals) was constructed underneath.  In August 1985 Miami International Airport’s ninth ATC-Tower become operational.

  British Airways inaugurated supersonic Concorde flights between Miami and London on March 27, 1984.

  The post Deregulation period brought many changes to airline service at Miami International Airport.  On January 7, 1980 Miami based National Airlines was merged into Pan American.  Braniff International ceased operations on May 12, 1982 after a major expansion program that was followed by an economic recession.  Later that year Eastern Airlines acquired the bankrupt carrier’s extensive Latin American route network.  Air Florida terminated operations in 1984 as a result of falling passenger numbers and the crash of a Boeing 737 in the Potomac River.  Several months later Midway Airlines picked up some of the liquidated carrier’s assets.

  Eastern Airlines was grounded on January 18, 1991 after numerous years of financial difficulties and labor/management squabbles.  American Airlines subsequently acquired the bankrupt carrier’s routes to Latin America and built a very successful Miami hub.  Prior to the establishment of its hub, American Airlines carried 2-million passengers and was operating 19 daily flights to six domestic destinations.  By October 1999 the carrier was operating 189 mainline and 79 regional daily flights. 

  Iconic Pan American shut down operations on December 4, 1991.  Rising fuel costs, terrorism and years of financial problems resulted in the carrier’s demise.  United Airlines was later awarded the carrier’s routes to South America and established a substantial hub.  Over the years the operation diminished in size and by the mid 2000s flights were only being operated to the carrier’s major hubs. 

  In 1991 Iberia Airlines (which had begun scheduled service in 1973) established a mini-hub at Concourse F.  Passengers traveling between Europe and Central America were channeled thru MIA where they would make their connecting flights.  Unfortunately the operation was closed in 2004 when nonstop flights between Madrid and Central America were initiated.

  A $4.7-million Capital Improvement Program was kicked off in 1993 with the goal of expanding and modernizing the airport.  Construction projects on the drawing board included seventeen new air-cargo terminals containing some 2.7-million square feet, a new parallel runway and numerous 20th Street Terminal improvements.

  An early casualty of the renovation program was an area known to the aviation community (and enthusiasts) as corrosion corner.  This section of the airfield was home to vintage propliners and early first-generation jets operated by colorful airfreight operators.  Several hangars (bordering NW 36th Street) used for servicing these wonderful aircraft were also demolished.  Until this period it was not uncommon to see a Boeing 707, Douglas DC-6, DC-7, DC-8-50 or a Lockheed L-188 Electra flying over Miami neighborhoods.

  During the late 1990s several former Eastern Airlines facilities along NW 36th Street were demolished to make way for new construction.  The Eastern Airlines Headquarters Building, the old Eastern Terminal (used as the Human Resource Office for many years) and hangars built during the 1940s and mid 1950s were among the structures razed.

  British Airways along with several international carriers moved into the first phase of the newly completed Concourse A in June 1995.  The 305,000 square-foot ($110-million) concourse was initially opened with 10 gates.  A 242,000 square-foot ($87-million) expansion became operational in December 1999 increasing the number of gates to twenty.

  The present day Concourse H (originally built for Delta and US Airways) was completed in March 1998.  The 18-gate ($46-million) pier was built in two phases on the site of the old 1961 structure.

  Avborne Heavy Maintenance moved into a spacious new hangar (situated on the north side of the airfield) in 2000.  The facility encompassed 226,000-square feet and could simultaneously service three wide-body airliners or nine narrow-body jets.  Over the years ABX, AirTran, Continental Airlines and US Airways were among the MRO’s customers.  AAR Aircraft Services acquired Avborne in 2008. 

  In April 2000 construction started on American Airlines North Terminal with the expansion of Concourse D.  Since its inception the $3-billion project was weighed down by cost overruns and slowly moved forward in a piecemeal manner.  Concourse B was demolished in 2006 followed by Concourse C three years later to make way for new construction between Concourses A and D.  During the winter of 2009 American Airlines relocated its landside operation into a newly completed section of the facility.  The new passenger service area encompasses 290,000-square feet containing 58 ticket counters and 66 self-service check-in kiosks.

  When completed in March 2013 the 3.2 million square-foot linear complex boasted a rooftop people-mover system with four stations, a federal inspection center, 48 international-capable gates and two ramp-level commuter gates.  The automated people-mover system (completed in September 2010) has the capability to transport 9,000 passengers per hour and a single train can traverse the mile-long terminal in three minutes.  The new federal inspection center contains 72 check lanes and is able to process 3,600 passengers per hour.  A dedicated automated baggage-handling system has over 9 miles of conveyors with a capacity to handle 8,400 bags per hour.  Amenities for patrons include 166,922-square feet of concession space that include 118 shops and restaurants.

  The Federal Aviation Administration activated the current 333-foot ($24.9-million) ATC-Tower in December 2002.  On August 29, 2003 runway 08L-26R was opened to airfield operations.  The 8,600-foot ($161-million) runway increased airport capacity by 25%.  Three years later the old ATC-Tower was demolished.

  On August 29, 2007 the South Terminal opened to scheduled airline service.  The complex was comprised of a new 1.7-million square-foot five-story building, an adjoining Concourse J and the existing Concourse H.  The new facility boasts a total of 28 gates accessed by means of three security checkpoints.  Its federal inspection center has the capacity to process 2,000 passengers per hour.  Housed within the building are 60,000-square feet of concession space that include 61 shops and restaurants.  Delta Airlines was the first carrier to move into the new terminal.  Air France operated the first international flight on September 14th.  Ten days later a LAN Airlines flight was the first to use Concourse J.  Nineteen airlines (mostly Sky Team and Star Alliance carriers) have subsequently moved into the facility.

  Lufthansa Airlines (which commenced scheduled service in 1981) launched Airbus A-380 service between Miami and Frankfurt on June 10, 2011.  A restored American Douglas DC-3 and an Eastern Airlines DC-7 were on hand for the inaugural festivities at MIA’s South Terminal.  Hundreds of spectators flocked to the airfield’s southern perimeter to see the world’s largest airliner.

  A $270-million automated people mover system began transporting travelers between the 20th Street Terminal and the consolidated Car Rental Center on September 09, 2011.  The system utilizes eight Mitsubishi shuttles that cruise along two 1.25 mile-long elevated roadways at 40 mph.  The shuttles have rated capacity of 3,250 passengers per hour.

  The Car Rental Center (situated east of the terminal) opened on July 13, 2010.  It houses 16 rental-car companies within four levels and can accommodate 6,500 automobiles.

  MIA is currently the second busiest international gateway in the United States.  In 2012 Miami International Airport handled 39.4-million passengers and 391,195 takeoffs and landings. 

  Forty-two scheduled passenger carriers serve the airport (as of 2013) with flights to over 133 global destinations.  American Airlines and its subsidiary (American Eagle) are the busiest operators with more than 328 daily flights to 114 worldwide destinations.  More than 27.6-million American Airlines passengers passed thru the MIA hub in 2012 making it the busiest international gateway in the system.  Domestic and international airfreight carriers transported 2 million tons of cargo (during 2012) making MIA the third busiest freight terminal in the United States. 

  The airport occupies 3,230 acres and has four jet-capable runways that range in length from 8,600 to 13,000 feet.  Its large Centralized-type terminal currently has six concourses with over 130 gates, an elegantly appointed 260-room luxury hotel, three federal inspection centers and two garages capable of accommodating 7,500 automobiles.