Forty years ago, American’s future US Airways hub looked quite a bit different. Predecessor Piedmont Airlines had two gates at an old airport, now a quiet office. It could operate 86 daily flights because, in those days, who needed a gate? You could walk to the airplane.
On April 25, 1982, Piedmont moved to a newly built airport. Charlotte Douglas had 25 gates in two terminals, 3 million passengers annually and 161 daily departures on four airlines: Eastern, Delta, Piedmont and United. That started the growth of a medium-sized Southern city’s airport into a global hub, now the third-largest single airline hub in the world with 612 daily American departures (and about 650 total departures). In 2021, Charlotte Douglas was the world’s sixth-busiest airport with 43 million passengers.
At a ceremony Monday, one of the key guests never worked for Piedmont. Carolyn Baker went to work for Mohawk Airlines in Ithaca, N.Y., in 1961. In 1972, Mohawk merged with Allegheny, which became USAir in 1979. Baker, now based in Charlotte, is number two of about 24,000 on American’s flight attendant seniority list. “I didn’t think I’d still be here after 61 years,” she said. “I was the youngest in my (flight attendant) class. What do you know at 18?”
Baker now flies international from Charlotte. She has occasionally confronted passengers who won’t wear masks, but she does this in a gentle way. “When they see the gray hair and the wrinkles, they do it,” she says. “It’s their grandmother talking to them.”
“There’s two ways of getting someone to do something for you,” she said. “One is to come down hard. Or you can schmooze and say, ‘Your mask slipped.’”
About 250 people attended Monday’s ceremony. Many were current and former American employees, including customer service agent Tammy Boucher, who joined Piedmont in 1981. The week before Piedmont moved from the old terminal to the new one, “I was working night shift,” Boucher said. “They had us over here stocking the ticket counters and the gates, so we could start day one.” The old terminal “was one little room, and we had grown so fast,” she said.
Ralph Massas, American vice president for the Charlotte hub, said the new airport opened with 86 daily Piedmont departures to 34 destinations. Denver was the farthest west destination. Winston-Salem based Piedmont had 410 Charlotte workers: today American has 12,500.
In the past 40 years, Massas said, “More than 20 legacy hubs have faded into history.” Charlotte, meanwhile, is “challenging the dominance of another airport just a few hours south,” referring to Delta’s hub in Atlanta.
Airport growth has not ceased, said Aviation Director Haley Gentry. An ongoing $3.1 billion improvement project includes 10 new Concourse A gates that will open in 2025, a fourth parallel runway that could open in 2027 and continuing main terminal improvements.