I'm still not sure how Birmingham missed getting a major airport, but they did. Just like Muscle Shoals and Ford City, the story of Birmingham and the airlines is another head-scratcher worth considering.
But first, do you remember the old Birmingham airport before it was renamed and gussied up?
As a child, I wanted to go there even if I wasn’t traveling. I remember riding with my mom to pick up my Nana when she flew into the Steel City. A visit to the airport meant I could see an airplane up close. Back then, we could also walk to the gate, snag a pair of wings from the fancy flight attendants, and perhaps take a gander at the cockpit because pilots did that sort of thing back then.
There were also those non-reprintable, just-like-gold paper tickets. Once, in an unfortunate series of events, we left them at home, which meant we barely made it back to the airport in time to take off.
And then there were those thick clouds of smoke in the Birmingham airport waiting rooms. And the oddly colored airport façade that was like a mood ring that remained a soupy, grayish brown. Yes, the old Birmingham airport always was in need of a glow-up.
It's not hard to imagine then that we may have gotten a newer, bigger, brighter airport much earlier if our city fathers had been able to work something out with Delta Airlines.
Perhaps it’s old news, but did you know that Birmingham was in the process of becoming Delta's hub?
It was quite an opportunity. Unfortunately, our city fathers weren't as interested in Delta making their home in the Magic City as the Atlanta folks were in establishing Delta's operations in Georgia.
Landing Delta certainly would've changed the fabric of the city and our state. But I can't help but think about what could have been or what might have happened had Delta come to Birmingham.
What made Birmingham leaders say no to a new airline – one that started with the world's first aerial crop dusting operation, Huff Daland Dusters?
Delta Air Lines was founded in 1925 in Macon, Ga. Passenger operations began in 1929 and ran from Dallas to Jackson, Miss., and soon extended east to Atlanta and west to Fort Worth, Texas.
For a variety of reasons the airline skipped Birmingham, and in 1941, Delta’s headquarters moved from Monroe, La., to Atlanta.
"Atlanta's mayor at the time, William Hartsfield, and the Atlanta business community aggressively lobbied for airport expansion in Atlanta,” Art Franklin wrote in an article for CBS several years ago. “Birmingham city leaders, on the other hand, chose not to pursue the emerging airline."
Franklin continued: “Atlanta's airport, capitalized as Delta's headquarters … now generates $52 billion a year in total revenue. Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International brings in just $1 billion in economic impact."
But perhaps there were other explanations, such as the others floated by Franklin and Gilbert Nicholson in the “Birmingham Business Journal.”
One reason may have been because of our attitudes toward race. I'm not the type to float that out often, but it was the 1930s and ‘40s in Alabama. Plus, I'm a realist.
Or maybe it was because the steel industry demanded center stage.
Perhaps it was because of the time zone difference and the Eastern time zone was just easier to deal with than the Central one.
Or maybe it came down to taxes. As Nicholson writes, "The city pulled the biggest goof of the century when it raised an aviation fuel tax in the 1940s just as Delta Air Lines was looking for a Southern hub."
And speaking of Southern hubs, Delta wasn’t the only airline that wanted to come to Birmingham. Eastern Airlines – the jet planes my Nana flew on – thought about coming here too:
"Former chamber president Don Newton says now-defunct Eastern Airlines, one of America's largest carriers, wanted Birmingham as a hub to link Miami with the East Coast. ‘They thought Birmingham was an ideal spot,’" Nicholson writes, quoting Newton. "’But the Birmingham economy was controlled by a very few companies, and it wasn't important to them.’"
Did you catch that line, that familiar refrain? It wasn't important to them.
Ultimately, that’s what I think happened. Delta and Eastern flew over Birmingham in favor of other locations all because of our leaders.
Whether it's Delta or Eastern or even Henry Ford and Muscle Shoals, the story of Alabama is that too often, our government and its leadership step in the way of opportunity.
Campaign season is upon us. Isn’t it time we learn from our past and ensure the election of leaders who share our values and understand what matters to us?
Amie Beth Shaver is a speaker, writer and media commentator. Her column appears every Wednesday in 1819 News. Shaver served on the Alabama GOP State Executive Committee, was a candidate for State House District 43 and spokeswoman for Allied Women.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected].
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