MIAMI – On June 14, 1929, the Memphis Municipal Airport was opened on a 200-acre plot of land, just a couple miles from where a little-known man by the name of Elvis Presley would later reside. Now, almost 90 years later, it is starting to find its stride once more.
The early Memphis Municipal Airport (MEM) was much different than the facility which we see today: when it opened, MEM had a measly three hangars, accompanied by an unpaved runway.
Located just 7 miles southwest of downtown Memphis, this modest airfield quickly began to grow. Within a year, a lighted runway had been created, with more than a dozen passengers arriving and leaving each day.
Chicago and Southern Air Lines (later acquired by Delta Air Lines), along with American Airlines, provided passenger service as well as a mail connection to Memphis. In 1938, a new terminal was built to handle the inflow of passengers and the increased demand for air travel.
However, these passenger operations ceased between the moment of U.S. entry into World War II and 1947, when the U.S. Army Air Force, Air Transport Command 4th Ferrying Group, took control of MEM, leading to a temporary halt in further expansion during this time.
By 1951, the airport had four separate runways, the longest being Runway 9/27, measuring in at 6350 feet. Just a few years later, in 1957, the airport measured 64-weekday departures, and in 1960, Delta Convair 880s launched Memphis Municipal Airport into the jet age, flying from Chicago to Memphis to New Orleans.
Further buildings were added, and an Airport Planning Commission was created, whose goal was to modernize MEM to prepare it for new jetliners. A $5.5 million terminal was opened in 1963, allowing 7 daily flights, and the airport was renamed Memphis Metropolitan Area – which became Memphis International Airport just a few years later in 1969.
In addition, the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority was created to help support further growth, which caused a huge increase in capacity within the next decade, adding two concourses and terminals to the existing airport, pricing in at $31.6 million.
Memphis quickly expanded its international status in those next decades. In 1985, Republic Airlines began flying to Mexico, followed by KLM offering service to Amsterdam (which was later cut in 2012).
Today, Cancun and Freeport are the only international services from Memphis, with Cancun being served by Aeromexico, and Freeport being served by Vacation Express for Bahamasair. In May, however, Air Canada will once again offer a daily flight to Toronto.
In the 1960s, Southern Airways was a crucial regional carrier for Memphis; it becomes Republic Airlines in 1979. As a result of the Airline Deregulation Act, and flight requirements no longer being necessary for approval by the Civil Aeronautics Board, large hubs became popular, outweighing hub-and-spoke systems, and MEM became a hub for Republic Airlines until its 1986 merger with Northwest.
This merger stimulated a hectic eruption of expansions, improving everything from baggage facilities, to catering and food, repaving runways, building new maintenance features, and building a more modernized control tower, which occurred up through 2008.
The new “World Runway”, an 11,100-foot feature, was a major factor in this upgrading, as it allowed for large widebody jets to carry full payloads at full ranges, opening up Memphis to the world.
However, those golden years came to an abrupt stop, when in the summer of 2013, Delta, a major presence at MEM, decided to cease hub operations there. While Delta still maintained the largest number of passengers to and from the airport, Memphis took a hit with these large cuts.
The airport recorded a nearly 32% reduction in passenger volume from 2012 to 2013, and a further 21% decrease from 2013 to 2014. In addition, between 2012 and 2013, Memphis saw a 15% decline in passenger aircraft movements. By Q3 of 2014, the average fare had decreased by 4.7% as compared to a year earlier. The airport struggled tremendously during this time and suffered huge losses.
Thankfully, this decline ceased in 2015, when slight increases in passenger volume and passenger aircraft movements were reported. These were further bolstered in 2016 when these numbers continued to slowly recover.
This recovery was in part due to a tremendous increase in Southwest Airlines’ and American Airlines’ presences at Memphis, as well as the addition of Frontier Airlines, Allegiant Airlines and United to the airport over the span of these struggling years. The addition of international services to the airport has also begun to help Memphis, and will hopefully continue to increase traffic in the future.
However, the true heart of MEM and its new revival lies not in commercial and passenger aviation, but instead, in cargo traffic. In 1981, Federal Express, or FedEx, opened their “Superhub” at Memphis International Airport, which has continued to grow exponentially ever since.
Between 1993 and 2009, Memphis was the largest cargo airport in the world. It has since been ousted by Hong Kong; however, it remains the second busiest in the world and the busiest in North America.
Throughout the struggles in the early 2010s, Memphis maintained a modest, yet steady, growth rate in cargo movements and volume. This maintained a level of growth while the rest of the airport was in turmoil, as a massive amount of cargo moved through Memphis every year. The growth rate is also partially responsible for keeping the airport alive, and is certainly MEM’s claim to fame.
Today, as part of Memphis’ revitalization, a massive renovation project is underway. The airport has commenced operations on a modernization expected to cost $214 million. While the current airport layout has airlines and operations dispersed throughout the airport’s 3 concourses, the final product will have all airlines operating out of Concourse B, with Concourses A and C being closed.
Concourse B will be closed from 2018 through 2021, as it will be heavily renovated and redone. (During this time period, operations will be consolidated to Concourses A and C.) The rejuvenation of Concourse B will include the addition of, among other features, more natural lighting, higher ceilings, moving walkways, a play area for children, a lounge and charging areas, and much more open space for passengers to move around.
The overall result will be much more open, airy, modern, and efficient than the current concourse, and will be much more favorable than the current Concourse B. The consolidation of shops and restaurants to Concourse B, as well as the movement of all airline operations to this location, will be heavily beneficial to passengers, airlines, and shops and restaurants, and will be much more convenient than the current layout.
As this not-so-tiny airfield just a few miles outside of Memphis nears 90 years old, it has managed to grow in prosperous times, survive in difficult times, and maintained its high status, yet traditional feel. The airport appears to be on the rise, and if history is to repeat itself, nothing will stop this small Southern airport from pushing through whatever comes its way.
Memphis International Airport always has, and always will, maintain itself as a pillar of quality and value, and through the upcoming renovations, as well as its revival through both cargo and passenger traffic, Memphis is truly looking up at the future, awaiting what is to come in the Birthplace of Rock and Roll; in the City of Blues.
Written by: Ryan Gibbons