The Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC) marked its 75th anniversary in 2018, but the idea of creating a single government entity to own and operate Twin Cities’ airports only came about with some diplomacy following years of spirited competition.
Long before the MAC became the airport’s owner and operator, air travel in the Twin Cities went through a series of boom-and-partial-bust periods. The Roaring 20s, the Great Depression and the build-up to World War II all influenced the growth of what is now Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP).
Out of those years emerged the need to develop one primary airport for the metropolitan area and to create a governing board to promote the growth of aviation in the Twin Cities. But getting there was more a process than a straight path.
Here’s how it began.
MSP traces its roots to the demise of the Twin Cities Motor Speedway, which operated on the airport site starting in 1915. The Speedway went bankrupt in 1917 after a brief two-year run, and civic leaders saw an opportunity for a new landing strip to attract more airmail service.
Speedway Field later was renamed Wold-Chamberlain Field to honor two Minneapolis-born aviators killed in World War 1. Wold-Chamberlain Field over the next decade developed on that 160-acre parcel and grew along with an airmail route to Chicago.
During the prosperity of the 1920s, airfield use continued to grow, and Northwest Airlines -- whose acquirer Delta Air Lines still is the largest air carrier at MSP -- formed in 1926 as Northwest Airways.
Col. Lewis Brittin, Northwest’s founder, based the company at Wold-Chamberlain and won the contract for airmail service to Chicago with support from Henry Ford, the automotive industry pioneer.
Both Minneapolis and St. Paul had a hand in the operation of Wold-Chamberlain in the early years. In 1926, the city of St. Paul pulled out of its participation at Wold-Chamberlain and worked to develop an airfield closer to its core downtown area. It was thought having its own airport near the city center would give St. Paul businesses a competitive edge.
Holman Field, across the Mississippi River from downtown, would become a major draw for airmail and airline service. The competition between the two airports would later contribute to the formation of the MAC.
Northwest’s first passenger flight occurred on July 5, 1927, with service from St. Paul to Chicago. A one-way ticket cost $50, which adjusted for inflation would be $708 today. The flight took 12.5 hours with stops in La Crosse, Madison and Milwaukee.
St. Paul’s withdrawal from Wold-Chamberlain created a need to change management of that airport. The Minneapolis Park Board was the only municipal agency that had authority to buy land outside the city limits and was seen as the best choice to operate the airport.
The Park Board bought the airfield for $165,000 in 1928, as the 9th Naval District was announcing plans to establish an air squadron at Wold-Chamberlain. That and other military-related developments at the airfield would influence MSP’s fast growth during World War II.
During the late 1920s, each of the Twin Cities’ two primary airports continued to grow its own base of business. In the summer of 1929, statistics from a one-week period in July showed Holman Field with 82 airline operations and Wold-Chamberlain with 96.
Wold-Chamberlain also had 307 sightseeing operations that same week. The sight-seeing trips typically lasted 7 to 15 minutes and cost $1 or $2.
Air carriers handled the two Twin Cities’ airports differently. Some air carriers served one airport or the other. Northwest and a few others tried to serve both.
The U.S. Postal Service also decided in 1937 that airmail stops would alternate between Wold-Chamberlain and Holman Field -- if the St. Paul airfield was improved.
Locally, the competition was seen as healthy. In the bigger picture of national aviation, though, some local leaders believed the Twin Cities were hurting their ability to lure more air service and business.
n the summer of 1937, the Minneapolis Star reported that the present Wold-Chamberlain facilities “are admittedly taxed to near capacity.” Both Northwest Airlines and Hanford Airlines, which hauled airmail, operated at the airfield. Airport managers made plans for land purchases south of the existing airfield.
Ideas were floated in the early 1940s regarding how to enable airport growth once World War II ended, and a committee formed by the Park Board recommended having one joint airport for the Twin Cities.
“(Wold-Chamberlain) is nearly equidistant from the loop districts of Minneapolis and St. Paul and the running time from each of the loop districts to and from the airport is substantially the same,” the committee noted. “In its enlarged aspect it can adequately serve both cities.”
That led to a legislative proposal to authorize “first-class” cities to issue up to $3 million in bonds for airports.
As the legislative will to help establish airports grew stronger, area leaders looked for a way to unify the Twin Cities and the surrounding metro area behind one primary airport property.