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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.