The Arrival of the Jumbo Jet at CLE
Updated: Nov 29, 2020
Coping with Growth; Terminal Overcrowding & Development Delays
Despite the plans announced in 1969 for the expansion and modernization of the terminal (click here for a detailed article), Cleveland Hopkins International Airport did not expand as much as many other major airports at this time (remember that by 1968, Cleveland Hopkins was still the 14th busiest airport in the United States, versus 45th in 2019).
Serious social and economic problems racked the city in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and diverted the attention of the city’s leadership away from long-term, commercial aviation concerns, particularly with regards to the airfield and its one main runway, and its vastly overburdened terminal. While other cities built new airports in less developed areas, Cleveland Hopkins remained in its original landlocked location.
Just a bit more than a decade earlier, the new terminal, opened in April 1956, was lauded by Architectural Forum (June 1956) for its "close to CAA's ideal for quick entrance and exit, one-way circulation" The article further stated, "Cleveland has a carefully studied circulation system, unobtrusive concessions and an uncluttered lobby, handsome accent walls of red, blue and yellow glazed brick, nonbearing walls and partitions for easy expansion." With the tremendous growth in commercial aviation and the advent of jet aircraft in the early 1960s, the terminal had great difficulty coping.
Complaints by passengers and the airlines mounted as the expansion did not get underway as quickly as had been hoped. The airport was simply “bursting at the seams,” according to Port Director, W. Keily Cronin in 1971. The single-level roadway was always congested, the terminal was overcrowded and stiflingly hot in summer (only the new South Concourse was air conditioned), the single escalator from the lower level was often out of commission, the restaurant and snack bar in the main lobby was often packed, and the small gate areas in the two older concourses were increasingly insufficient for newer, larger aircraft.
Despite the obvious need for modernization, Cleveland City Council cut 75% off a proposed $2 million bond sale to finance preliminary architectural and engineering planning for the expanded terminal. Instead, it approved $455,000 in September 1971, preferring to divide the plans into four segments. Director Cronin stated that every month of delay added 1% to the construction costs, and that Council failed to understand the airport's or the airlines' needs. Council countered that it was simply exercising its role as "watchdogs" of the project. It took over two more years for the airlines and city to agree on a final expansion plan in December 1973.
American Airlines, the airport’s perennial number two carrier, reached a tentative deal with the City of Cleveland to expand its quarters on the North Concourse while it waited for the new East Concourse to be built. The $400,000 project, to be jointly financed by AA and CLE, was to have added three boarding bridges, air conditioning, and a new outbound baggage belt to serve American's 36 daily flights. The expensive equipment was to have been reused in its new concourse, then expected to open in 1975 (also to house Eastern, Mohawk, North Central). The deal fell apart in September 1971, after AA refused to sign a lease for its space stating that it was too risky to sign what it characterized as an unfair agreement.
The Jumbo Jets Arrive
In spite of the challenges, CLE began to prepare for the imminent arrival of the new jumbo jets, primarily the Boeing 747 and the McDonnell Douglas DC-10. United Airlines brought its first B747 Friend Ship to Cleveland on September 9, 1970, when one of its first 342-seat jumbo jets did a test run to ensure ground staff and equipment were able to handle the plane in case of a diversion from Chicago or an East Coast airport.
The jet actually parked in front of two gates (54 & 55) on the “banjo” of the South Concourse, as the jet bridges could not be raised enough to accommodate such a tall aircraft. The first regularly scheduled B747 route was not started until April 1972, flying from Cleveland to Honolulu (HNL) with a stop at Chicago (ORD).
The first DC-10 arrived at CLE on August 12, 1971, when United did a proving run of its new 222-seat jets, complete with 8-channel audio! Regular service was initiated by United on a CLE-Chicago (ORD)-Miami (MIA) route on December 16, 1971. The aircraft also featured a Friend Ship Room lounge for coach passengers with Sunbird Swizzle cocktails on the Florida run. United touted the new tri-jet as an environmentally more friendly bird, smoke-free and with quieter engines than the first generation of jets.
American Airlines began DC-10 Luxury Liner service on March 12, 1972, on a routing of New York (LGA!)-Buffalo (BUF)-Cleveland-Los Angeles (LAX) and back. Their aircraft also seated 222 passengers, a large increase over the 135-seat B707 that it replaced. American decried the lack of suitable jetway-equipped gate facilities for these new wide-body aircraft at CLE, but eventually combined four of its six 50-seat gates on the North Concourse into one large general seating area and agreed to park the jets closer to the terminal to minimize the walk and exposure of passengers to the elements.
Other regularly scheduled routes from CLE served by the new wide-body jets included:
CLE-LGA (DC-10 on AA) starting December 15, 1972
CLE-Philadelphia (PHL)-Washington (IAD)—The Philadelphia Express, CLE-Chicago (ORD)-Portland (PDX)-Seattle (SEA)—The Pacific Northwest Express, and CLE-ORD-Anchorage (ANC)-Tokyo (TYO)—The Orient Express (NW28, NW 57, and NW3, respectively, all on DC-10s) starting in May and June 1973
CLE-LAX (B747 on UA) beginning in June 1973—this author was on the inaugural flight
CLE-MIA (L-1011 Whisperliner on EA, as far as I can tell, the only regular, albeit short-lived, service by a TriStar at CLE) as of December 17, 1973
An additional Snow Bird CLE-Tampa (TPA, DC-10 on UA), also in December 1973
In preparation for its new wide-body service to Miami, Eastern Airlines spruced up Gates 3 and 5 on the West Concourse by adding 3,600 square feet of carpeting and additional seating to accommodate the 254-passenger jets, as well as covered walkways extending from the doors to within feet of the boarding stairs. These renovations were considered temporary fixes until the eventual improvement of the concourse, ultimately completed almost a decade later.
A look at the schedules from the Official Airline Guide (OAG) from DepartedFlights.com effective April 1, 1974, shows a variety of wide-body service from Cleveland Hopkins consisting of 10 daily flights:
CLE-ORD (2x 747 on UA, 1x DC-10 on NW)
CLE-MIA (1x 747 on UA)
CLE-EWR (1x DC-10 on UA)
CLE-PIT (2x DC-10 on UA)
CLE-SFO (1x DC-10 on UA)
CLE-TPA (1x DC-10 on UA)
CLE-IAD (1x DC-10 on NW)
A year later (April 15, 1975, OAG), there were still 9 daily jumbo jets servicing CLE, with the addition of CLE-ATL (1x DC-10 on UA) and the resumption of CLE-PHL (1x DC-10 on NW) service.
Here are some vintage ads for the new wide-body service at Cleveland Hopkins in the 1970s.
Some of these early wide-body routes from Cleveland, most notably those operated by American and Eastern, succumbed to the energy crisis of the mid-1970s and were replaced with smaller aircraft. Overall airline traffic slumped in the period between 1974-1976 due to limited fuel supplies and skyrocketing prices, which forced airlines to curtail service. It seems that only CLE-ORD sustained wide-body service over many decades, along with a variety of charter services. This is a far cry from recent years with the only daily wide-body flights at CLE being freighters operated by FedEx and UPS.
Check out this evocative vintage video of the action at Cleveland Hopkins in 1974 by Classic Airliners & Vintage Pop Culture (https://youtu.be/W9nsn0JyAyw). It includes both views of the approach to the airport and the old terminal, as well as United and Northwest Orient DC-10s parked at the South Concourse, plus plenty of United 737s and 727s, a United stretch DC-8, and American and Eastern 727s.
Future articles will focus on the 1970s expansion of the CLE terminal, public art at the airport, as well as the rocky history of United Airlines at Cleveland Hopkins. Stay tuned.