Did you know that the AirportHistory.org archive not only contain amazing images, but also airport traffic statistics going back to the earliest years of commercial aviation?
Today, we present you a snapshot of the world's 10 busiest airports 60 years ago in 1961, at the dawn of the Jet Age!
10. New York LaGuardia Airport
In 1961, New York's LaGuardia Airport handled 3.3 million passengers, ranking the city's domestic airport as the tenth busiest airport in the world.
In 1961 LaGuardia was still operating from the original 1939 terminal building. The following year, work would begin on phased construction of a new terminal on the same site, which opened in 1964. History is repeating itself today as the 1964 building is being replaced piece by piece by a much larger new terminal
In 2019, LaGuardia handled just over 30 million passengers, putting it at 21st place in the United States and 71st in the world.
9. Chicago Midway Airport
Chicago Midway Airport was the world's busiest airport in terms of passenger traffic until 1959, when it handled just over 10 million passengers, a huge number for that time period! However, due to the limited length of the runways, Midway was unsuitable for the first generation of jets, such as the Boeing 707 and DC-8.
Thus, in 1960 the transfer of traffic to the newly expanded Chicago O'Hare began and traffic at Midway started to decline. That year, the airport handled 6.9 million passengers. In 1961, traffic at Midway reduced to 3.6 million passengers, which still lands it a place in the top 10 of that year.
After laying empty for a number of years, traffic at Midway slowly recovered, and in 2019, the airport handled 20.8 million passengers, ranking it 28th busiest in the United States and 127th in the world.
8. Atlanta Municipal Airport
In 1961, Atlanta Municipal Airport handled 3.8 million passengers, ranking it the eighth busiest in the world.
In May of that year, Atlanta opened its new Jet-Age terminal, allowing the airport to fully leverage its favorable geographic location and develop into one of country's primary connecting hubs.
In the following decades Atlanta, now called Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, would steadily climb up the ranks. In 1998, it became the world's busiest airport in terms of passenger numbers, a position it has held until today. In 2019, Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport handled a whopping 110 million passengers.
Read about the evolving design of Atlanta's midfield terminal complex.
7. Miami International Airport
Miami International Airport has traditionally functioned as the US gateway to Latin America. In 1961, Miami handled 4.1 million passengers making it the seventh busiest airport in the world at the time.
Miami's new terminal was only two years old in 1961 and was expanded that year with the addition of a sixth concourse (today's Concourse H)."
In 2019, Miami handled 45.9 million passengers, ranking it 16th in the US and 45th busiest in the world.
6. Washington National Airport
In 1961, Washington National Airport handled 4.7 million passengers making it the sixth busiest airport in the world.
Due to its constrained location National was not able to expand. In 1962 Washington Dulles Airport was opened to accommodate the city's long-term needs.
Through the years National, now called Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, dropped in the rankings. In 2019, the airport handled 24.8 million passengers, ranking it 26th in the United States and 117th in the world.
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5. San Francisco International Airport
In 1961, San Francisco International Airport handled 5.2 million passengers making it the fifth busiest airport in the world that year.
San Francisco's runway layout is not conducive to hub-and-spoke operations and in the 1980s "SFO" dropped out of the world's top ten.
However, due to the tech boom in the 1990s, San Francisco again entered the top ten even becoming sixth busiest in the world. In 2019, the airport handled 57.5 million passengers, ranking it seventh busiest in the US and 23rd busiest in the world.
4. London Airport (Heathrow)
London Airport, as Heathrow was called back then, handled 6.3 million passengers in 1961 making it the fourth busiest in the world and the only airport outside the United States to make the top 10!
In 2019, Heathrow handled over 80 million passengers, ranking it seventh busiest in the world.
Read about Heathrow's early runway layout here.
3. Los Angeles International Airport
In 1961 Los Angeles International Airport opened its massive new Jet-Age terminal complex. That year, "LAX" handled 7 million passengers, ranking it third busiest in the world.
In 2019, it handled just over 88 million passengers, again ranking it third busiest in the world after Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson and Beijing Capital Airport, and second busiest in the United States behind Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
Explore the LAX 1960s Jet-Age terminal here.
2. Chicago O'Hare International Airport
In 1961, Chicago O'Hare Airport handled 9.6 million passengers, ranking it second busiest in the nation. In 1962, the transfer of traffic from Midway to the expanded O'Hare was completed. That year O'Hare became the busiest airport in the world, a title the airport would retain until it was overtaken by Atlanta in 1998.
In 2019, the airport handled 84.7 million passengers ranking it sixth busiest in the world and third busiest in the United States, behind Atlanta and Los Angeles.
1. New York International Airport (Idlewild)
Due to the transfer of traffic between Chicago Midway and O'Hare, New York's Idlewild Airport, now John F. Kennedy Airport, temporarily became the busiest airport in the world in both 1960 and 1961. In 1961, Idlewild processed 10.2 million passengers.
In 2019, Kennedy Airport handled 62.6 million passengers ranking it sixth busiest in the nation and 20th busiest airport in the world.
Read more about the fascinating history of John F. Kennedy Airport starting here.
The results are summarized below.
BONUS: See expanded top 30 list here
The expanded top 30 list contains some very interesting surprises. For example, did you know both Pittsburgh and Cleveland were among the top 20 of busiest airports in 1961?
What are your observations? Let us know in the comments below!
I want to give a big thank you to Justin Lee, aviation historian Shea Oakley and Geoff Scripture of the Terminal Museum in Houston, who assisted me with the research for this article.
A FEW NOTES ON METHODOLOGY
It needs to be stated that in the 1960s there was not yet a standardized methodology among airports and airport authorities for keeping statistics. Data from different sources often have different numbers and sometimes transit traffic is included or not. Where possible, we relied on data directly supplied by the airports. As we have at least two sources for all numbers, we are confident the above presents a reliable picture.
Data for airports in the former USSR for 1961 is unavailable. Statistics for Chinese airports were not kept at the time.
With a title inspired by the setting of the iconic 70s film "Airport", this blog is the ultimate destination for airport history fans.
Marnix (Max) Groot Founder of AirportHistory.org. Max is an airport development expert and historian.