MIAMI — In the heart of orange-farming country once laid a small, sleepy air force installation. Now, Orlando may be becoming a top-tier U.S. airport.

In 1940, as the world was beginning to go to war, the U.S. Army Air Corps quietly opened Orlando Army Air Field #2, on a wooded plot on the southern side of Orlando.

Built as a commercial alternative to the then-militarized Orlando Army Air Base (Orlando AAB), the military regained control in 1942, converting it to a small training base.

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Existing as support to Orlando AAB, the airport—renamed to Pinecastle Army Air Field in 1943—featured B-17s, B-24s, and B-25s as training aircraft for advanced bombing runs. The base then supported test runs of the Bell X-1 after World War 2.

The Korean War brought military activity back to Orlando, which became a Strategic Air Command center facilitating B-47s and KC-97s before its renaming as McCoy Air Force Base.

Photo: Valder137

Under this new name, the base was known for its operation of B-52s and KC-135s, as well as a fleet of U-2s that remained stationed there until the 1970s.

However, near the end of its military years, McCoy began to welcome a limited amount of commercial aircraft, operating as a joint facility when the size of modern jets could no longer be satisfied by Orlando’s Herndon (now “Executive”) Airport.

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The city government took control of a former missile hangar to use as a new terminal, with the first commercial flights to the new “Orlando Jetport” commencing in late 1961.

The Airline Era Begins

McCoy’s Jetport slowly began to gain steam as being Orlando’s main airport, being serviced by Delta, National, Eastern, and Southern Airlines by the early 1970s, and gradually replaced Herndon as the city’s aviation center.

Douglas DC-8-51, Delta Air Lines, Orlando International Airport. Photo: John Proctor

This growth led to the full commercialization of McCoy, which took its current name of Orlando International Airport under the IATA code MCO.

The airport began to quickly expand, gaining recognition by the U.S. Customs Service as a Foreign Trade Zone and quickly gaining passenger traffic.

The Disney Boost

Yet, the airport was most affected during the 1970s by an event that would drive its growth for decades: the October 1971 opening of Disney World, a mere half hour from MCO.

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This mega-tourist attraction became a defining feature of Orlando, and with its rapid growth came a rapid demand for travel to Orlando: Eastern Airlines, then Delta, became the official airline of Disney, creating a hub in Orlando.

A tourism focus drove Orlando’s expansion and sustenance for decades.

Photo: JTOcchialini

In modern times, this tourism base has maintained Orlando’s travel: nearly four times as many visitors to Orlando are leisure travelers rather than business travelers.

This impressive number has been maintained even through rapid growth in Orlando’s technological, economic sector, with corporations such as Lockheed Martin, Siemens, and other major technological industries opening offices.

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This tourism dependence, while arguably risky, has heavily paid off for Orlando: between 1995 and 2016, the number of tourists visiting Orlando annually nearly doubled to 63 million.

MCO’s passenger volume has responded accordingly: 30 million passengers passed through MCO in 2000, a number which skyrocketed to over 43 million passengers in 2017 – a number that gave Orlando the boastful title of the busiest airport in Florida, surpassing international gateway Miami.

Photo: Orlando International Airport

With this enormous growth and newfound prestige in its region, Orlando can no longer be ignored as a significant player.

Miami is commonly considered an East Coast hub, particularly for flights to Europe and South America. Yet, Orlando – an airport generally ignored regarding network significance – has been quietly gaining steam as a national powerhouse.

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Being a focus city/hub for Frontier, JetBlue, Spirit, and Southwest, Orlando has attracted heavy short-haul traffic.

Currently offering 84 domestic routes, MCO offers direct flights to nearly every major U.S. City, including those along the East Coast, in the Midwest and Texas, and even cities along the West Coast such as Seattle and Los Angeles.

This domestic strength has throttled MCO’s growth, primarily as an expanding economy promotes more tourism.

Photo: elisfkc

Though, historically, Orlando’s struggle lay in attracting international routes, especially long-haul routes to Europe – something that has held relatively accurate for many decades.

MCO built strong connections throughout the Caribbean and Canada, including a few stray routes to England – yet for much of its commercial life, it remained a second-tier international airport.

Recent years, however, have seen a significant change in Orlando’s international potential.

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MCO has rapidly expanded its international service to serve 55 destinations.

Direct Link Accross The Pond

While many of these are throughout Central and South America, Orlando has developed a substantial presence in Europe, with 12 direct flights operating to the continent.

This international service has been further complemented by the initiation of a non-stop flight to Dubai via Emirates – a service that allows one-stop flights to nearly every major city on Earth from Orlando.

Further attention to Orlando’s international endeavors was called by Delta’s recent initiation of a nonstop flight to Amsterdam, which began in late March.

Delta has a varied mix of 74 Boeing 767-300 aircraft, ranging from the Extended Range (ER) version with winglets, to the non-ER, mostly used on transcon flights. PHOTO: CARLOS LUGO.

The daily Boeing 767-300ER flight adds Amsterdam to Orlando’s growing European destination list, which now also includes London, Paris, Copenhagen, Oslo, Manchester, Glasgow, Dublin, Belfast, Keflavik, Zurich, and Frankfurt.

This wide range of destinations, and the transfer opportunities they provide—with many of these locations being major global hubs—have begun to develop Orlando into a serious transatlantic competitor.

MCO has rapidly expanded its available infrastructure not only to match this demand but also to prepare itself for an explosive future.

The Plan

A multi-billion dollar project is currently underway, featuring the partial renovation of the existing terminal to expand available area, the construction of an Intermodal Terminal Facility which will provide rail service to South Florida, and most importantly, the creation of a South Terminal complex, which will upon its opening in 2020 feature 16 gates and will be expanded over future decades to 120 gates.

Photo: Orlando International Airport

The construction of a parking garage and “South Airport Automated People Mover complex,” which will connect to the existing terminal and the future South Terminal, has already opened.

This enormous expansion to the existing airport will drastically increase capacity, with the final estimate (after the full expansion of the South Terminal) hovering over 80 million passengers per year.

Doing so would match Orlando’s capacity with that of the world’s largest airports, such as Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, and even Dubai.

Photo: Orlando International Airport

However, throughout all of this expansion, Orlando’s challenge will remain its position as a significant destination rather than a connection joint.

The vast majority of Orlando’s passengers are not connecting; instead, for most, Orlando is either their initial or final location.

The world’s major airports typically feature a large percentage of connecting passengers, with both Atlanta and Dubai finding strength primarily through connecting passengers.

The ability to overcome this perception as merely a destination is a necessity for continued passenger growth: if Orlando cannot generate connecting passenger volume, its expansion may be limited.

The key to doing so may be qualifying itself as a point of international connections between South America and Europe: with multiple direct flights to both, passengers flying from Europe to South America could theoretically connect in Orlando.

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However, this is dependent on the airport marketing its position as such to airlines and encouraging international connections.

A further solution to this blockage may be the discouraging of long-haul low-cost carriers (LCCs) in favor of full-service airlines.

Many prominent international airlines serving Orlando include LCCs Norwegian, Thomas Cook, and Azul Brazilian Airlines.

While the presence of these carriers at Orlando is integral to its current status and growth, they exist instead of full-service airlines – discouraging many passengers from Europe, who instead choose the alternative.

Thomas Cook Airlines Scandinavia Airbus A330-343X OY-VKG seen arriving on runway 22 at London Stansted (EGSS, STN). Picture: Thomas Saunders.

By encouraging service by prominent full-service airlines, both international and domestic, Orlando can attract a broader range of customers, especially those who will frequently travel these long-distance flights.

Doing so would also secure its connotative position among passengers and airlines as a principal, full-service airport rather than a cheap, tourist-filled location – a necessity to develop into a global player.

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This swampy outpost has seen it all, from U-2s to 747s. With a storied past behind it, Orlando has promised a storied future to match it. Its rapid growth has yet to ease, and its physical expansion promises much more in the coming years.

With fate seemingly on its side, Orlando might soon join the ranks of the elite as a major U.S. hub.