A flight out of this terminal is a trip back in time.
TERMINAL A, LGA- I love this terminal. It’s actually one of my favorites in the world, and it’s so close to my Astoria apartment that I could walk to it. There’s not much to it — it’s small, there’s only one restaurant, one snack shop, one bar, and a few gates. It’s definitely not an air terminal of this time, and that’s precisely what to like about it. Laguardia’s Marine Air Terminal is, literally, “the only active terminal in the United States dating from the first generation of passenger air travel.”
(And it earned that distinction in 1980).
When you walk into the Marine Air Terminal you’re transported into another era of commercial aviation, when flying was a new, rare, and high-class experience. The place was built in 1940 and your first impression of it is a two-story rotunda that is ringed at the top with a historic mural of … honestly, I’m not sure what the mural is of. In the center of the room are antique wooden benches that are worn smooth and shiny from generations of elbows and butts. The floor is made of marble, the walls are marble, and there is a big model airplane suspended from the top of the dome. The place looks more like a historic train station than an airport, and it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.
Almost needless to say, they’ve added on a modern area to the terminal’s historic rotunda, which is basically just a nondescript rectangular with concrete walls and a few narrow slits pretending to be windows. This is where the planes leave from today. The rotunda is just a place for passengers to hang out before going through security, but we don’t need to talk any more about that.
For a few years in the 1940s the Marine Air Terminal was ground zero for international commercial aviation. At one point it was the only airport in the country with regular flights to Europe.
It’s name, Marine Air Terminal, was not a misnomer. Long distance planes in those days were called “flying boats,” as they taxied, took off, and landed on water. The Boeing 314 Clippers that serviced this terminal would land in Bowery Bay and taxi over to a long tunnel that was a cross between a dock and an air bridge that passengers would use to access the planes.
However, this prestige was short lived. Idlewild Airport opened in Jamaica Bay in 1948 and took away much of the Marine Air Terminal’s traffic. It was bigger, more modern, and would eventually become JFK.
The Boeing 314 Clippers were also decommissioned in 1948 — a mere eight years after the Marine Terminal opened — as flying boats were rapidly made absolute by advances in the technology of planes that could take off and land on land, which were pragmatically known as “land planes.”
Eventually, the Marine Air Terminal feel into disuse, mostly being utilized for private and military flights for the next 30 years. Then Pan Am began running a shuttle to Boston in 1986 that mostly catered to business travelers. A few years later Delta would buy this shuttle and continued its focus on business travelers, with 80% meeting this designation.
There’s still something about the place that seems suited for business travel. It’s so small and manageable that you could literally show up ten minutes before boarding and not feel rushed. There aren’t that many flights, which means not that many passengers, which means not that long of lines. I don’t think I’ve ever flown out of this terminal and had more than one group of people in line ahead of me for the security check. You could almost walk into terminal and right onto your flight without breaking stride.
I write this without hyperbole. The lady behind me in the security line actually did arrive 10 minutes before her flight — and if she didn’t forget her purse on the inspection belt and have to come back for it she would’ve have even needed to run to her gate.
I think we take the speed of technological advancement in the 20th century for granted sometimes. The first successful manned flights didn’t even happen until the first decade of that century, and hardly 35 years later massive air ships were taking paying passengers across oceans. Think about that for a moment. An entire paradigm was created and the world was significantly changed within a single generation, and Laguardia’s Marine Air Terminal is the last remaining monument to this era of human ingenuity.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii