Airport of the Future?

December 14, 2015

In our last column, we talked about the magnificent Convair 990, world’s fastest jetliner until the Concorde SST. This 1959 ad shows the 990’s smaller sibling, the Convair 880, a sleek four-engine jet airliner originally called the “Golden Arrow” flying over New York’s Idlewild Airport, better known today as JFK.

The Convair  880

Named for the 880-foot distance the jet travelled every second at cruise speed, the Convair 880 was perhaps the most elegant jetliner ever designed. Carrying 84 passengers with five-abreast seating in Coach, the 880 became the third U.S. commercial jet to enter service when it flew from Atlanta to New York for Delta Air Lines in May 1960. TWA didn’t introduce 880s on their medium-range routes until one year later due to legal complications with airline owner and business mogul, Howard Hughes.

Delta referred to their 880 as “The Aristocrat of the Jets,” and like the aircraft shown in Convair house colors in this ad, Delta’s 880s were painted all-white. As one might imagine, although the jets looked quite striking in their distinctive pure-white color schemes, they became a nightmare for maintenance personnel attempting to keep them clean – especially in winter. Bare metal wings, fuselage undersides, and aft engine nacelles eventually replaced the original all-white paint scheme.

As the smallest first-generation jetliner, the 880 measured 129 feet from nose-to-tail with a wingspan of 120 feet, compared to the Douglas DC-8’s 151-foot length and 142-foot span. With its 610-mph cruising speed, the 880 was also the fastest new jetliner in the air, although that performance came with notably high fuel consumption (and noise levels). Powered by four General Electric CJ-805 turbojets producing 11,200 lbs. of thrust each, the 880 had a range of 2,600 miles.

In the above ad for the Convair Division of parent company General Dynamics, we see the prototype 880 flying over the new International Arrivals Building and control tower at Idlewild (in fictitious afterburner apparently), with two more 880s in Convair markings at the east and west gates. Note the glaring absence of any other company’s products on the ramp! The subtle runway pattern seen in the background is fictitious as well, giving the illusion of myriad taxiways at the bustling airport.

Embellished by typically futuristic Art Deco fountains in the center of a large reflecting pool, Idlewild’s architecture represented the very latest in cosmopolitan airport design, despite the fact that passengers still walked out to their jet and climbed boarding stairs, all the while exposed to the weather.  

Mobile telescoping ‘Jetways’ to protect passengers from hot or cold temperatures as well as jet blast were still years away at this point, despite the ad’s headline touting “Dramatic Designs – Years ahead for years to come.”