The Lost Art of the Airport Postcard
Updated: Oct 21, 2021
Whenever I fly, I swing into one of the airport newsstand shops, looking for something, or somethings, in particular.
They used to be common. Most major airports had them.
Not anymore. I blame the smartphone.
I didn’t travel much when I was a kid. On occasion, when I did fly, it was almost always to visit relatives. Same city, same airports. Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver, and Salt Lake City, typically. Still great, don’t get me wrong. Just not a lot of variety.
I wanted something to decorate my high school locker, to make it feel more exciting, to make my life seem more exotic than it really was. Postcards were just the right size.
It wasn’t the cliché postcards of mountains, attractions or skylines that piqued my interest. It was postcards of the airports themselves. Because I’d been there; I’d experienced them. I knew their concourses, their moving walkways, their trams, their regional gates. And everything about the experience fascinated me.
The first time I flew through Denver International, just a year or so after it opened, it blew my mind. It felt massively large compared to MSP. The underground train between concourses was cool (high speed, colored lights, spinning propellers on the walls) and ridiculous (that silly music that preceded the announcements) at the same time. The concourses were wide and bright. The soaring architecture of the Teflon terminal roof pulled my eyes upward. Everything about the new DIA seemed humongous and new and amazing.
I wanted postcards to remember it. After all, this was the ‘90s; I was a teenager with no better than a crappy point-and-shoot film camera.
Of course, I also wanted postcards of MSP because it was my “home” airport and the home of Minnesota-headquartered Northwest Airlines with its familiar red tails. Several of these found their way into my locker.
I started asking friends and family who were traveling: If you see a postcard of the airport, would you mind picking one up for me? This was a small favor to ask; people were happy to oblige. Even though my travel experience remained limited, my little airport postcard collection soon expanded to include Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Portland, London Gatwick, and, of course, LAX and Chicago O’Hare.
Time passed and the world changed. Film cameras gave way to digital, and it became a lot easier to take more and better pictures to relive the memories of travel. Then along came smartphones. Now, nearly everybody has camera with them everywhere they go.
The airport shops still have postcards. Perhaps some of them even have postcards featuring that airport. I’ll bet LAX and O’Hare do; they’re destinations by themselves. However, I haven’t seen any in the other airports I’ve been through lately. Unhappily, it makes perfect sense. Postcards just aren't that popular anymore; why mail someone else’s photograph when you can text your own?
My airport postcard collection started out as a bit of avgeek amusement. I’ve kept this little rectangular stack of travel mementos with me through several moves, never guessing how much I would value it in the future. The photographs on card stock offer a glimpse into the world of aviation as I used to know it. Vanished airline liveries. Vanished airlines. Vanished airports (Denver Stapleton) and the airports that replaced them (DIA).
The Way We Were.
It’s an intriguing glimpse into the recent past of air travel. And it got more intriguing this summer while I visited EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
I was wandering through the Fly Market, past a booth with various aviation-related curios and antiques. I decided to walk through to see if there was anything interesting. A box of postcards caught my eye.
I stopped to flip through them. They were mostly photographs of airplanes from all over the world, a lot of them from the 1970s or '80s. Mixed in, though, were a few images of airports. One showed a TWA 727 holding short of the runway at LaGuardia with the New York skyline in the background. Another was of the ticketing area in St. Louis Lambert’s arched-ceiling terminal back when it was a TWA hub. (I’d been there two years prior and tried to picture this very scene at the time.) I bought them, along with a few other postcards of long-disappeared airlines just for the novelty factor.
These are too fun not to share, so I’ll be posting them to the Jetset Shirts Instagram on Thursdays in the coming weeks.
Be sure to follow us on Instagram so you don't miss out, and see you in the skies.
(Middle image originally published by Mountain State Specialties, photos by Jim DeLutes; lower image originally published by Cartwheel Co.)