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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Visitors arrive at the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport last December.

The Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport, geographically surrounded by larger airports in Knoxville, Nashville, Birmingham, Atlanta and Charlotte, always seems to be fighting for its share of flights, generally, and nonstop flights, specifically.

Nevertheless, local residents should appreciate the job the local airport authority has done both to maintain as many flights as possible and to keep updating the airport wherever possible.

On Monday, at a meeting of the panel, board members talked of the recent addition of a nonstop flight between Chattanooga and Miami, the hope for a similar flight between Chattanooga and Denver, and a June groundbreaking for a $28 million makeover and expansion of the terminal.

The airport had been making great strides by 2019, with six record-breaking boarding years in a row and more than 550,000 passengers in 2019. However, the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 put an end to that streak as it did to the growth of air travel across the country.

Officials said boardings in 2022 should once again top 400,000, which is an improvement from the last two years.

Times Free Press archives suggest the airport has long attempted to stay ahead of the curve; that is, officials have maintained if they offer ever more modern facilities the flights eventually will come.

A 1965 news story, just a year after the then-Lovell Field's sparkling new terminal was dedicated, captured the frustration of local officials.

Although more than $4.1 million had been spent on the airport in the previous 15 years (more than $32 million today) and boardings had increased, the number of flights had dropped.

In 1957, airport figures showed 180,492 passengers and 40 daily flights in and out of Chattanooga. In 1964, when the new terminal was dedicated with elaborate ceremonies featuring astronaut Edward H. White Jr. (who would perish with two astronauts in a 1967 Cape Kennedy ground fire aboard Apollo 1), boardings stood at 220,808, but flights had been reduced to 28.

"An evaluation of existing scheduled airline services as compared with services in previous years indicated an unbalanced condition because the passenger load and general local improvements have far exceeded the airline schedule improvements," a 1965 report presented by Chattanooga City Commissioner A.L. "Chunk" Bender and airport manager William E. Eckenrod Jr. to the U.S. Senate aviation subcommittee in Washington, D.C., said.

"Indeed," the report continued, "service to several cities has not only failed to progress but has actually been curtailed or in many cases cancelled during recent years."

In that era, the majority of Chattanooga flights went to regional cities such as Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis, Atlanta, Charlotte, and even the Tri Cities and Greenville/Spartanburg, S.C.

It's unclear whether the city got any satisfaction from the federal government about the schedules of airlines at the time — the airline industry wouldn't be deregulated until 1978 — but Bender's behind-the-scenes work did pay off later that year with the city's first jet service. Eastern Air Lines announced it would offer a daily (except Saturday) one-stop flight to and from the New York City area with one stop at Greenville-Spartanburg.

"I would like to take this occasion to put out a challenge to not only Eastern Air Lines but to all commercial airlines serving this area," said Bender, under whose auspices the airport was managed. "To coin a phrase from the late Winston Churchill, if the airlines serving our city will give us the flights and schedules, I believe we are ready to furnish the passengers."

Fifty-seven years later, Airport Authority chairman Jim Hall would echo the challenge Bender felt, with the added complication of pandemic-induced pilot retirements and slowed training.

"We're in a competitive environment for [airline] seats," he said "We need to keep working to expand our market and keep the existing customers we have.

Airlines will be "picking winners and losers," Hall added, indicating the importance of up-to-date airports. "They don't have enough seats or pilots."

The makeover/expansion of the passenger terminal speaks to that. It will add 26,000 square feet to the terminal and renovate an additional 36,000, officials said.

A description of the newly redone Lovell Field in the Bel Tel News about six months after the terminal's 1964 renovation sought to highlight its amenities: "The jet-age terminal at Lovell Field is the new front door to Chattanooga." The recently completed facility, it said, gives the city a modern airfield that is second to none.

Another publication said the new terminal offers "one a feeling of spaciousness and instant flight" and has "pushed into oblivion the outdated 'cracker box' types of facilities that Chattanooga had to get along with and has produced a dream come true."

Today, airport board members hope if-you-build-it, they-will-come still works.

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