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VOL. 126 | NO. 71 | Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Conference Pits MEM At Center of Aviation World

By Bill Dries

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For five years Memphis International Airport executives and other civic leaders have worked on developing the city’s aerotropolis – the concept of an airport serving as a region’s economic engine.

The idea will be as public as ever – at least here – Tuesday, the second day of the Airport Cities World Conference & Exhibition at The Peabody hotel. That’s when FedEx Corp. founder Frederick W. Smith and Delta Air Lines Inc. CEO Richard Anderson share the stage with University of North Carolina professor John Kasarda, the originator of the aerotropolis concept.

In the audience will be airport executives and economic development leaders from across the United States and from more than 40 nations, including Iran, Nigeria, Malaysia, Canada, Taiwan, Jordan, Italy and Ukraine.

The audience is not just a reflection of the current globalization trend, but it’s the latest in a series of historic trends in aviation that have brought international airports to where they are today.

What is now Memphis International Airport was created by the same forces of trends and history behind the aerotropolis movement.

Within months of each other, in 1927-1928, aviation pioneers Charles Lindbergh and Eddie Rickenbacker stopped in Memphis to promote the then-burgeoning commercial aviation industry.

Lindbergh brought The Spirit of St. Louis, the tiny single propeller plane he flew solo and nonstop from New York City to Paris just five months earlier, to the then two-year-old Peabody.

Rickenbacker, the World War I flying ace and Medal of Honor winner was still 10 years from becoming the owner of Eastern Air Lines.

Rickenbacker brought a challenge and a suggestion to Memphis, according to “Cotton Row to Beale Street,” the definitive business history of Memphis written by Robert A. Sigafoos.

“Providence protects the weak,” Rickenbacker told a Memphis group. “This is true in the case of Memphis. Here you have done nothing – comparatively speaking – for aviation. And all the time you have the finest airport site in the world at your door – given you by this providence.”

He was talking about Mud Island.

At the time, it had only been about 30 years since Mud Island had emerged permanently at the city’s riverfront, subject to regular flooding and considered a menace to river navigation.

An airport at the center of a city environment with the industries supporting it and supported by it, built around the airport is the essence of Kasarda’s aerotropolis concept.

City leaders took part of Rickenbacker’s suggestion. They considered 14 sites before picking the 200-acre Ward Farm on Winchester Road that they leased and later bought for $250,000.

Memphis Municipal Airport, three hangars and a sod field runway, opened in June 1929 with four daily flights. A more modern terminal building, still standing and still in use today, was built in 1938.

Mud Island would get a much smaller airfield much later with a runway that was flooded on a regular basis. When the island was built up and stabilized to prevent such wholesale flooding in the late 1970s, it became home to a park and later residential development.

Meanwhile, Memphis Metropolitan Airport – as it was then known – with its signature terminal building designed by architect Roy Harrover at a cost of $5.5 million, opened in June 1963 with 22 gates.

The airport changed its name to Memphis International Airport in 1969 and the airport authority was created that same year.

Federal Express moved its operations from Little Rock to Memphis International in 1973 and the airport’s cargo business rose as quickly as the fortunes of the corporation with a pioneering business idea.

The airport’s passenger business reached a milestone and grew rapidly in 1985 as it became a hub for Republic Airlines.

A year later, the airport got its first taste of the mergers and acquisitions that continue to define the changing landscape of commercial aviation. Republic was bought by Northwest and Memphis remained a hub of the Northwest system as it does for Delta Air Lines, which bought Northwest two years ago.

Now the city’s historic providence is in the spotlight once again as the world’s most important airport and aviation leaders discuss the industry’s future.

PROPERTY SALES 120 120 21,080
MORTGAGES 130 130 24,262
BANKRUPTCIES 37 37 13,505