A Rare Look at the Glory Days of the Manila International Airport

The airport held such promise before it burned to the ground in 1972.

Before Manila International Airport (MIA) was renamed to commemorate the late senator Ninoy Aquino who had been shot on its tarmac, the premier air travel hub experienced both trials and successes that made it what it is today.

The first of its kind

The looming despair of the Great Depression did little to hamper the aviation trend that inevitably hit the American-influenced Philippines in the late '30s. With American officials and troops flying in and out of the country, and commercial air travel becoming a booming business, Manila established four airfields: the first civilian airfield at Grace Park, the second at Nielson Tower, and two military-serviced airfields at whatâs now Camp Aguinaldo and Nichols at Camp William McKinley.

Additionally, Manila Bay served as a landing site for seaplanes and accommodated Pan American Airways planes right at the legendary Manila Hotel.

The terminal at Nielson Field

A forerunner in the local aviation scene, shipping tycoon Don Eugenio Lopez launched the Iloilo-Negros Air Express Company (INAEC) in 1932, according to the Philippine Star. Five years later, it expanded and introduced flights via its own seaplane, the Sikorsky S-43 amphibian, which became a delight for early passengers since it carried 16 guests and flew with stewards, a rarity at that time.


Months before the first Japanese invasion in December 1941, Andres Soriano and his inner circle of businessmen achieved the remarkable by founding Philippine Airways, the first and oldest commercial airline in Asia. A group of Filipinos, German, and Spanish industrialists, which included Juan Elizalde as one of its investors, pooled together a capital of P500,000 and changed the name to Philippine Air Lines before its incorporation, reports Airways Magazine. The first PAL plane, a Beech Model 18 that seated just five passengers, fired up its engine and journeyed from the Nielson airfield to Baguio in March.

Andres Soriano and the rest of the PAL crew at Nielson

Prisoners of war

Tragedy struck both INAEC and PAL, which, along with the other airfield and airlines, were devastated by the war or taken over by the Japanese in the 1940s. INAEC was completely destroyed, while the PAL fleet continued to fly but under the Japanese government. Luckily, the Japanese worked to improve the services of the Nielson and Nichols airfields and were later spared from destruction. Nichols, the larger of the two, would later serve as the future Manila International Airport.

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The entrance to the Nichols airfield

Rebuilding local aviation

As the smoke of war subsided, Soriano and Lopez wasted no time in picking up the pieces. The INAEC was re-established as the Far Eastern Transport Inc. (FEATI) in 1945 and became the first airline to fly regionally, with travel offers to Hong Kong and Bangkok from Grace Park. In 1946, PAL offered flights to 15 domestic locations with five aircrafts at its disposal. Impressively, it took less than a year before PAL began offering regular flights from Manila to San Francisco.

Base Operations building at Nichols

It wasn't long before the Nichols airfield was handed over to the governmentâs National Airport Corporation, which converted the air force base into an airport in 1948. Its humble beginnings can be traced back to a single passenger terminal housed in a small building and one domestic runway. Over the course of 13 years, the airport added a second runway to service international flights, control tower, and another terminal. It later came to be known as the Manila International Airport.

A Pan-Am plane in Manila in 1981

Leisurely travel in the early '50s was a luxury but the experience wasn't as luxurious as it seemed. Passengers pushed and shoved their way through the tiny terminal building and left and right, people yelled out instructions. Arriving back home was the same story: thorough bag checks and a slow journey through chaotic immigration and customs counters. Despite that, departing passengers would still board the plane in their Sunday best and happily wave back at their loved ones on the viewing deck.

The new MIA and its replacement

By 1961, a new and improved MIA terminal opened. The aircraft models, including the DC-8 and Boeing 707, then had a beautiful home in Manila. The airport featured modern interiors by architect Federico Ilustre, popular for designing the Quezon Memorial Monument in a 22,000 square meter space. The airport also had the countryâs first escalator, which brought passengers to a floor occupied by numerous restaurants and a salon.

MIA in the '60s

MIA was named one of the best and most profitable airports in Asia but unfortunately, this success was not to last. A fire destroyed the four-story building on January 22, 1972, killing six people. In its place, a small terminal was constructed.

It was only in 1981 that passengers received more space to breathe when a suitable replacement, now Terminal 1, was built to substitute the small building that serviced the international flights. Two years later, the terminal became the scene of a heinous crimeâthe assassination of Senator Benigno âNinoyâ Aquino, who had just returned from the United States on August 21, 1983. In 1987, Manila International Airport was renamed the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

This story originally appeared on Townandcountry.ph.

* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.

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