Memphis started its fledgling aviation industry in 1927 when city Mayor Watkins Overton created a municipal Airport Planning Commission. Among the Commission’s first official tasks was to choose a site for the proposed airport. The Commission chose Ward Farm, a 200-acre tract located just seven miles from Downtown, where the open countryside would allow for future growth.
The Memphis Municipal Airport, consisting of three hangars and a sod field runway, was dedicated on June 14, 1929. By the following year, the airport had its first lighted runway and as many as 15 passengers a day were arriving and departing Memphis Municipal Airport via American Airways and Chicago & Southern Airlines, the two major carriers serving the airport.
A modern terminal was built in 1938 to meet the demands for increased commercial passenger service. When the United States entered World War II, the U.S. Army assumed control of the Memphis airport facilities, halting further expansion and progress until 1947, when the troops vacated the airfield and existing facilities were enlarged.
A new Airport Planning Commission was named in 1956 and members wanted to design and construct a new airport terminal to meet the rising demands of the “Jet Age.” The new $5.5 million terminal was dedicated in 1963 and Memphis Municipal Airport was renamed Memphis Metropolitan Airport. The new terminal featured 22 gate positions, allowing enough space for seven airlines to operate daily flights.
The airport’s name was changed in 1969 to Memphis International Airport to reflect its status as a point of origin and entry point for international passengers and cargo. That same year the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority was created to plan and direct the future of Memphis aviation. Under the newly created Authority, airport terminal capacity would more than double over the next ten years, with the addition of two sub-terminals and their adjacent concourses.
Memphis International Airport received another huge boost in 1973, when FedEx Express (FedEx) was founded in Memphis, and the company built a sorting facility and an administration building on the airfield. FedEx’s package-sorting complex, which would later come to be known as the Super Hub, along with the company’s around-the-clock operations have combined over the years to make Memphis International the number-one busiest cargo airport in the world for 18 consecutive years (1992-2009). Memphis is currently #2 busiest cargo airport in the world behind Hong Kong. Memphis remains #1 in the U.S.
In 1985, Republic Airlines chose Memphis International Airport as one of its hubs, dramatically boosting commercial passenger service. In 1986, Republic merged with Northwest Airlines, setting into motion a flurry of construction projects as the airport sought to keep up with the resulting increase in traffic and service. Construction projects included: expanding baggage handling facilities, relocating existing and building new car rental centers, updating food and beverage facilities, repaving runways and aircraft aprons, constructing a new airfield maintenance complex, adding more employee parking areas, enlarging passenger waiting areas, and building a ramp control tower to better manage aircraft parking.
Also in 1986, the Authority completed work on a new Master Plan for continued development, the key elements of which included constructing a third parallel north-south runway; extending an existing runway to 11,100 ft., to better accommodate non-stop international flights; improving existing terminal concourses; building a new International Arrivals Facility; creating additional parking; and making roadway improvements. As outlined in the 1986 Master Plan, the new International Arrivals Facility opened in June 1995, to accommodate the first non-stop Northwest/KLM Royal Dutch Airlines Memphis-to-Amsterdam flight, and the third parallel north-south runway became operational in 1996. An 11,100 ft. World Runway was dedicated in 2000. The highly anticipated World Runway allows airport access to fully loaded, wide-bodied jets that carry up to 25 per cent greater maximum payloads and fly non-stop to points halfway around the globe.
Perhaps one of the most significant occurrences in the history of Memphis International Airport occurred in September 2004 when the Airport Authority negotiated the historic land swap between the Tennessee Air National Guard and FedEx. The land swap provided TANG the space it needed to construct totally new facilities to accommodate the significantly larger C-5 Galaxy aircraft that the Guard were flying as part of its new mission. TANG’S relocation to the southeast corner of the airport freed space for FedEx to expand and consolidate its operations on the north end of the airport. TANG dedicated its new facilities in September 2008.
Since 2004, the Airport has completed an extensive renovation of its concession program, giving passengers a taste of Memphis themed around Memphis’ music and cultural heritage. Other improvements have been made to the ground transportation area and parking, as well as a reconfiguration of the roadway system to make getting to and from the airport a lot easier.
In 2006, Dr. John Kasarda, professor at the University of North Carolina, coined the term “aerotropolis” and suddenly the potential economic impact and worldwide visibility of Memphis International Airport took on even greater significance. The economic vision of the Memphis aerotropolis and its economic potential has become a major part of Memphis’ long range plans.
Memphis International Airport and the concept of America’s Aerotropolis are at the forefront of the Memphis Fast Forward initiative that has been launched by a partnership of Memphis Tomorrow, the Greater Memphis Chamber , and both the City of Memphis and Shelby County.
These and other developments will continue to propel Memphis International Airport through the 21st Century and allow the fulfillment of its vision to be recognized as a “world class” aviation center as we carry out the mission of being an aviation leader which goes above and beyond the expectations of our customers and the citizens of the Mid-South.