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The ‘new’ Tampa International Airport is turning 50; got memories?

Bill DeYoung



Rendering of the new Tampa International Airport, 1970. Postcard image

Tampa Bay entered the modern age on April 15, 1971, with the opening of the $80 million “Landside/Airside” terminal at Tampa International Airport.

A few days earlier, an estimated 50,000 members of the public toured the expansive facility – the first in the nation to ferry passengers from the terminal to the gate on automated shuttle cars, or “people movers.” It was also trumpeted as the first American airport designed with jumbo jet capability – for the new Boeing 747, Lockheed L-1011 and the DC-10 from McDonnell-Douglas.

The airport administration is asking area residents to share photos, home movies and videos of the airport over the years.

“Tampa International Airport is part of the fabric of this community,” said Danny Valentine, Senior  Director of Communications. “So many people have had amazing moments, heartfelt, human moments at the airport – seeing a loved one for the first time, or sending a loved one off. We’re simply trying to capture some of those moments to help us celebrate this 50th anniversary.”

People looked different then; so did the airport. “Personally, I love the look of the ‘70s-era airport,” Valentin said. “You’ve got the shag carpets … it just a style and an edge to it.”

Photo: Tampa International Airport

Quick stats

First of its kind in the history of air travel, Tampa’s new Landside/Airside Terminal is the jet gateway to mid-Florida. Attuned to the “doorstep-to-doorstep” concept of airline travel, the unique design of the Tampa International Airport terminal stresses the important of quick, convenient handling of the traveler, allowing him to exchange air and ground transportation in the shortest time, with a minimum of walking … he’s never more than 700 feet walking distance from his auto, cab or bus to the door of his airliner.

Hillsborough Aviation Authority ad/Tampa Tribune, April 11, 1971


Tampa International Airport, 1957. Photo: tampapix

Originally known as Drew Field, the airport was taken over by the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. In 1950, when Trans Canada and National began international flights, it was renamed Tampa International Airport.

Trans World Airlines (TWA) introduced passenger jet service to Tampa in 1952.

The area’s growth and population explosion in the 1950s and ‘60s mandated a bigger, better airport; construction on the Landside/Airside facility began in 1968.

Three million passengers moved through the airport in 1970, its final year of operation. Forty-nine years later (in fiscal year 2019) the number was 22.2 million (Covid-19 travel restrictions curtailed the count for 2020).

The “new” airport had 4,000 parking spaces (compared to 1,100 at the old terminal). The original control tower was 60 feet high; the new one (still under construction in April 1971) would raise that to more than 200 feet.

Baggage carousels were an entirely new concept in 1971.

The four-story escalators in main terminal were the tallest in the region – copper “birds” by artist Roy Butler were hung overhead as a point of reference so riders wouldn’t experience vertigo. “Of course, now you see four-story elevators all the time, but back then it was such a novelty,” Valentine said. The birds are still there, albeit in different locations.

Unhappy that Walt Disney World, which would open that October, seemed to be gobbling up every available palm tree in Florida, airport director George Bean had a huge airport greenhouse constructed, in order to grow and nurture their own trees.

Ten major airlines traveled in and out of Tampa International Airport in 1971, including TWA, United, Delta, Pan Am, Eastern (“The Official Airline of Walt Disney World”), Air Canada, National , Northwest and Braniff. They were assigned either red or blue color codes, for easy customer recognition and directions.

Under construction when the new terminal opened, the nine-story, 300-room airport hotel debuted the next year.

Today, Tampa International Airport covers 3,300 acres and continues to make physical improvements and expand.

“We’re compiling the photos and videos for a 50th anniversary video,” said Valentine. “The way we see it, we serve the community. What better way to celebrate the airport being part of the community than through actual Tampa residents’ own footage and past memories.”

Submit your memories here.

Recommended reading on the history of the “new” Tampa International Airport here.


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