Charlotte Douglas International is one of the busiest airports in the US (it was the sixth busiest in 2020 based on passenger volume). It opened in the 1930s as a municipal airport for the Charlotte area, but has since expanded as a major hub for Piedmont Airlines and American Airlines.

Opening as a civil airport in 1936

Charlotte Douglas started life as a municipal, civilian airport - not as a military airfield like many other airports. Its development was part of the 1930s US Works Progress Administration program - designed to provide employment in public projects to millions of people across the US who were out of work during the Great Depression.

The airport opened as Charlotte Municipal Airport in 1936. Initially, it had three runways, an aircraft hangar and one terminal building (which still exists as offices). Eastern Airlines was the main operator at this time with regular scheduled flights.

'Although it opened as a civilian airport, it transferred to military use during the Second World War. The US Army Air Force took over in 1941, and renamed it as Charlotte Air Base. It was used as a base for antisubmarine patrols during the war.

CLT airport
Charlotte Douglas has gradually expanded to offer three parallel runways. Photo: USGS via Wikimedia

Expansion during the jet age

The airport returned to municipal ownership and control in 1946. Over the next years, there was expansion in airport facilities and airlines serving it. A new larger two story passenger terminal opened in 1954. The airport was renamed as Douglas Municipal Airport in the same year - after a former Charlotte city Mayor.

Eastern Air Lines continued to serve the airport with regional flights. Delta Air Lines, Piedmont Airlines, and Capital Airlines (later to merge into United Airlines) all served Douglas with regular regional flights by the late 1950s. Eastern Air Lines remained the dominant airline throughout the 1950s and 1960s. It opened a dedicated terminal facility in 1967.

Becoming a hub airport for Piedmont Airlines

Deregulation in 1978 brought many changes to aviation in the US. Many airlines expanded service regionally on newly permitted routes. Airlines routes, and passenger numbers, at Douglas Airport, increased quickly. Most significantly, Piedmont Airlines chose the airport as a new hub in 1979. Over the next years, it added many new routes, and developed a new further terminal building. The airport changed its name again in 1982, to Charlotte Douglas International.

Piedmont Airlines
Piedmont Airlines was critical in Charlotte Douglas growth. Photo: RuthAS via Wikimedia

Piedmont's expansion continued. It started non-stop flight to the US west coast in 1984, using the Boeing 727. Until that, most flights from Charlotte had been regional. It started international flights in 1987, operating the Boeing 767-200ER to London.

A major hub for US Airways and American Airlines

Piedmont Airlines was acquired by USAir in 1989, with the new airline becoming one of the largest in the US at the time. Charlotte remained a major hub for USAir (alongside others including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Washington-National).

USAir expanded service throughout the 1990s, from all its main hubs including Charlotte. This included significant transatlantic expansion, including some in alliance with British Airways. In 1997, it changed its name to US Airways.

Charlotte US Airways
Charlotte became a main hub for US Airways. Photo: James Willamor via Wikimedia

With this growth as a hub, the airport itself saw further expansion too. A new 7,400 square meter international concourse opened in 1990s (Concourse D), and a further regional concourse (Concourse E) followed in 2002. It underwent further major expansion from 2007 to 2015, in a project known as "CLT 2015." This saw the development of facilities including new roadways, a new cargo facility, and a new third runway.

US Airways and American Airlines merged in 2015 to create the world's largest airline at the time. Charlotte remained, and still does, a major hub for the newly formed airline (second behind Dallas Forth Worth). With its hub traffic, it was ranked as the sixth busiest airport in the US in 2020 (up from 11th in 2019, based on total passenger numbers). It is far from alone in having hub activity as a majority of its activity - Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson Airport has been the busiest US airport since 1998 due to its role as a hub for Delta Air Lines.

American Airlines CLT
American Airlines is now by far the dominant operator at CLT. Photo: NolesSC via Wikimedia

Further expansion in facilities is underway too. A new control tower was finished in early 2022, and several expansions to passengers concourses are planned over the coming years. Planning for a fourth parallel runway is underway as well.

Are you a frequent user of Charlotte Douglas International or would you like to discuss any particular parts of its history or airline usage? Let us know in the comments.

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