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‘New’ Tampa International Airport opened 50 years ago. Here’s what it was like.

The modern terminal complex delighted passengers and amazed architects around the world.
Left to right: A photograph of the 1971 Tampa International Airport terminal complex, Joyce Mandley's family visiting the airport when it opened (courtesy of Tampa International Airport), and executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority George Bean in the 1960s.
Left to right: A photograph of the 1971 Tampa International Airport terminal complex, Joyce Mandley's family visiting the airport when it opened (courtesy of Tampa International Airport), and executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority George Bean in the 1960s. [ Photo illustration by Gabrielle Calise ]
Published Apr. 15
Updated Apr. 15

Fifty years ago this week, more than 50,000 people headed to Tampa International Airport.

They weren’t sending off loved ones or scrambling to catch a flight with overpacked suitcases.

Instead, they came to admire.

April 15, 1971 was a historic day: Tampa International Airport opened its modern terminal complex — an $80 million innovation unlike anything that had been built before.

During a two-day open house, locals came to ride in futuristic new trams and watch planes come and go. Architects from all over the world traveled to see an iconic new design.

“They threw out all other ideas of how airports should look and built it around passenger convenience,” said airport spokesperson Emily Nipps. “What they created was super progressive, super modern, very different from other airports.”

The St. Petersburg Times ran a special section about the new Tampa International Airport on April 18, 1971.
The St. Petersburg Times ran a special section about the new Tampa International Airport on April 18, 1971. [ Tampa Bay Times Archives ]

Tampa’s Drew Field was established as an airport in the late 1920s and later renamed Tampa International Airport. In 1952, a second Tampa International Airport terminal was built there with a design similar to a bus station. Within a decade, Nipps explained, the city had outgrown it.

A postcard shows the original Tampa International Airport in 1952.
A postcard shows the original Tampa International Airport in 1952. [ STATE LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA | Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory ]

Airport consultant Leigh Fisher and Hillsborough County Aviation Authority Executive Director George Bean had a vision for a new complex centered around functionality and convenience for passengers. The goal was that folks wouldn’t have to walk more than 700 feet from their car to the gate.

“Back in the 50s and 60s, the original airports were built around the airlines,” Nipps said. “They made sense for the planes, but didn’t make sense for the people.”

“They conceived an innovative “Landside/Airside” concept,” a 2016 Times story said. “A central terminal hub with spokes radiating from it for plane gates. Trams, never used before in an airport, would take travelers back and forth to minimize walking and save time. Everything would be divided into two zones.”

Tampa International Airport in 1971.
Tampa International Airport in 1971. [ HANDOUT | Courtesy of Tampa International Airport ]

Fisher was responsible for the 1971 airport’s revolutionary hub-and-spoke design. He pitched the idea of connecting a main building to four to six terminals using a computer-run tram system. According to the Times archive, these trams were based on a “mobile lounge” idea used at Washington’s Dulles Airport.

To cut down on walking distance, visitors were able to park above the main terminal, accessible via elevator. To catch a flight, they boarded the tram — though in the beginning, Nipps said, people knew them as sideways elevators. The rental car lot was just a short walk away.

Hillsborough Aviation Authority head George Bean, pictured in 1968.
Hillsborough Aviation Authority head George Bean, pictured in 1968. [ Times (1968) ]

“Even the decorations had an ulterior motive,” read a 1996 Times report about the history of the airport. “The metallic birds over the escalators were designed to distract people with vertigo so they would not have to look down.”

The terminal featured red brick walls and ashtrays between the seats. Even though airline officials viewed such details as an unnecessary expense, TIA became the first major airport to have wall-to-wall carpeting. It was brown and orange and Bean was fiercely protective of it.

“He wouldn’t let airport shops sell gum. He didn’t want it getting stuck on people’s shoes or in the carpet he installed to reduce noise and create a sense of coziness,” said Bean’s 2004 obituary in the Times. “He didn’t allow popcorn vendors. Mr. Bean, an incessant smoker, insisted popcorn would stink up the airport. Besides, it was messy.”

A clip from the April 14, 1971 issue of the St. Petersburg Times shows details that were designed for passenger convinience.
A clip from the April 14, 1971 issue of the St. Petersburg Times shows details that were designed for passenger convinience. [ Tampa Bay Times Archives ]

There’s different flooring and plenty of gum sold at the airport today. The airport has also undergone several renovations and expansions, and announced a billion-dollar update in 2018. But the original concepts that made it so convenient and revolutionary still put passengers at ease today.

Passengers move through the central terminal at Tampa International Airport on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Tampa. The publicly owned airport, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Thursday, has received praise since its design in the 1960’s for its architecture and its central terminal which anchors landslide and airside services with a series of satellite terminals.
Passengers move through the central terminal at Tampa International Airport on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Tampa. The publicly owned airport, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Thursday, has received praise since its design in the 1960’s for its architecture and its central terminal which anchors landslide and airside services with a series of satellite terminals. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Jane Davis Doggett, now 91, still remembers what it was like to design the airport with a team of young engineers. She was responsible for the revolutionary red and blue wayfinding system.

“You can design a super building like a piece of sculpture,” she said. “But if you don’t have the directional system, you might wander around for years.”

Originally, engineers spoke about the sections of the airport by dividing it into the north and south. Doggett pointed out that many people wouldn’t be able to find north and south — especially at night. She proposed using red and blue instead.

Jane Davis Doggett, now 91, pictured five years ago in her former Jupiter Island home. She split her master of fine arts at Yale University between architecture and design.
Jane Davis Doggett, now 91, pictured five years ago in her former Jupiter Island home. She split her master of fine arts at Yale University between architecture and design.

Airlines were grouped into either color, making it easy for visitors to figure out where to go. Surveys found that the simple-to-read signs, with contrasting white letters on dark backgrounds, improved traffic flow and increased safety.

“The public got it immediately, and then the engineers stopped sweating,” she said with a laugh.

“They loved it, because it made it simple.”

Doggett also designed the airport logo. She would later return to help with the monorail system and the garage. She also went on to work on wayfinding systems at over 40 other airports, from San Francisco to Hong Kong, as well as projects at places like Madison Square Gardens. But she’s still very fond of Tampa.

“It’s a great airport, studied by an awful lot of people abroad,” she said. “They come to look at Tampa. It served me well in my portfolio.”

Related: Jane Doggett, wayfinding pioneer, designed Tampa International Airport's system still used today
Long-time Tampa International Airport passenger Joyce Mandley recalls visiting the airport when it first opened as a little girl.
Long-time Tampa International Airport passenger Joyce Mandley recalls visiting the airport when it first opened as a little girl. [ Courtesy of Tampa International Airport ]

The design also still stands out to Tampa Bay radio personality Jack Harris.

“I find irony in the fact that they had the rail cars going out to the air sides, they had light rail, basically… some of the first light rail in the country,” he said. “And yet, we don’t have the light rail or any other kind of mass transit for our downtowns or anything.”

Harris remembers attending the grand opening 50 years ago, back when Tampa had just “one so-called skyscraper.” Later, he would become the voice of the airport. Passengers heard him while strolling through the airport and riding on the tram.

“I used to love getting off the planes...and hearing myself saying ‘please stand clear of the doors, hold the handrails,’” he said.

Tampa International Airport in 1971, as shown in a photograph provided by the airport, and the airport in 2021, as photographed by Times staffer Doug Clifford.
Tampa International Airport in 1971, as shown in a photograph provided by the airport, and the airport in 2021, as photographed by Times staffer Doug Clifford. [ Photo illustration by Bernadette Berdychowski ]

The customer-friendly design brought more people and businesses to the area. Hundreds of thousands of visitors flew into Tampa on their way to Walt Disney World, which also opened in 1971.

“The Orlando airport was pretty pathetic back then,” Harris said. He praised the Tampa airport for being centrally located to get to for most of the surrounding cities, especially compared to places like Dallas and Denver.

He continued, “I’ve had nothing but great memories of the airport and flying in and out of there and everything. I mean, it’s just an incredible place. There’s none like it.”

Information from the Times archive was used in this report.

A Southwest Airlines passenger plane lands at Tampa International Airport on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Tampa. The publicly owned airport, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Thursday, has received praise since its design in the 1960’s for its architecture and its central terminal which anchors landslide and airside services with a series of satellite terminals.
A Southwest Airlines passenger plane lands at Tampa International Airport on Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in Tampa. The publicly owned airport, which celebrates its 50th anniversary on Thursday, has received praise since its design in the 1960’s for its architecture and its central terminal which anchors landslide and airside services with a series of satellite terminals. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]