PIA – A History: New Terminal, New Problems, 1958-1960

When the Greater Peoria Airport handled 94,914 passengers in 1957 (a 13.3 percent increase over the previous year), it looked as if the airport would top 100,000 for the first time in 1958. But this was not to be.

A recession plagued the nation’s economy by late 1957. It would last eight months, and one serious consequence – 3,000 layoffs by Caterpillar Tractor Company – hurt the local economy, and thus airline passenger traffic. Only 90,873 passengers enplaned/ deplaned at PIA in 1958. An American Airlines strike, begun December 19 (end January 10), couldn’t have helped matters.

Yet as 1958 unfolded, there was much to look forward. Runway 12-30 was extended to 7,000 feet with an additional 1,000 overrun. It opened for traffic on August 16, enabling the 169th’s F-84’s to fly out of their own base. Even better, a new mid-field terminal complex would soon replace the old cramped facility on Airport Road. By July 1958, the new terminal was 50 percent complete.

Peorians got a glimpse toward the future air travel when a Fairchild F-27 turboprop stopped here September 30 for a demonstration flight. Ozark Air Lines had recently placed orders for three of the 40-seat aircraft.

The new terminal opened on Friday, May 1, 1959 with full operations commencing the following Monday. On Saturday, May 16, a “Peoria Air Fair” to officially dedicate the new terminal attracted many static displays as well as 80,000 spectators. At this time, it was believed American Airlines would soon replace its 40-seat Convair 240s here with 70-seat DC-6s while Trans World Airlines would replaced its Martin 404s (also configured for 40 seats) with 81-seat Lockheed Constellations.

Meanwhile, Ozark Air Lines announced that F-27 turboprop service would begin September 27, but negotiations with the airline’s pilots’ union delayed scheduled service until early 1960.

Shortly after moving to the new terminal, TWA dropped its daily roundtrip Peoria-Kansas City service, leaving a morning Chicago-Midway to Peoria “turnaround” (eliminating one-way service from Chicago-O’Hare).

I’ve not figured out the rhyme or reason for offering service to O’Hare one way and Midway the other, but American Airlines began doing the same same thing, probably after inaugurating jet service to O’Hare (from New York) in March 1959 or Los Angeles the following month. American’s service was to O’Hare while a flight to Peoria, Springfield and St. Louis from the east stopped at Midway.

On March 1, 1959 Ozark Air Lines began touting a Kansas City connection via Ottumwa, Iowa. Ozark Air Lines schedules effective January 4, 1960 show single place service to Kansas City (via Burlington and Ottumwa), possibly as a replacement for the loss of TWA service to that city.

By 1959, the nation’s economy was growing again, and local factories were humming with activity. That year, airline passenger numbers totaled 98,214.

Ozark Air Lines inaugurated F-27 turboprop service to Peoria on January 4, 1960 with five arrivals and five departures per day. Routings included Chicago (Midway)-Peoria-Springfield (IL)-St. Louis-Springfield (MO)-Joplin, Chicago (Midway)-Peoria-Springfield (IL) and a Chicago (Midway)-Peoria turnaround. The carrier announced that it would soon shift some flights to O’Hare to maintain trunk airline connections.

Unfortunately, in mid-January TWA announced it would seek to end its remaining service. The carrier controlled 54 per cent of the Peoria market in 1954, but only four percent in 1959. Introduction by Ozark of F-27 turboprop service was expected to erode its market share even further.

Below are airline schedules culled from the January 1960 Official Airline Guide. American Airlines, Ozark Airlines and Trans World Airlines schedules were effective, January 3, 4 and 11, respectively.

PIA January 1960

This map shows air carrier routes through Peoria in January 1960.

PIA Routes January 1960

In the next installment of this series, we’ll analyze the end of Trunk Airline service to Peoria in the early 1960s, but also the rapid growth experienced by Ozark Air Lines during this period.

– David P. Jordan

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