The Fresno Yosemite International Airport opened as a military airfield in June 1942, just six months after Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, leading the United States to enter World War II. The new airfield was named Hammer Field and was used by the United States Army Air Forces as a training facility for the new pilots of the Fourth Air Force. It had a single northwest/southeast oriented runway with a length of 7,200 feet (now runway 11L/29R).
At the time, civil and commercial aviation used Chandler Field that had opened in November 1929. Chandler is located just 1.5 miles (2.4 km) west of downtown Fresno, but is on a relatively small site. Less than a decade after it was opened, it was already clear that the small runway at Chandler would not be able to accommodate the increasingly larger airplanes used by the commercial airlines.
After World War II, Hammer Field was inactivated by the Army Air Forces and the city of Fresno saw an opportunity to use the site to create a commercial airport much larger than Chandler Field. In 1946 the War Assets Administration reallocated the property to the city, which immediately began construction on a passenger terminal on the northeast side of the airfield. In 1948, the newly renamed Fresno Air Terminal (FAT) opened. Trans World Airlines (TWA) and United Airlines flights to San Francisco/Oakland and Los Angeles moved from Chandler Field to the newly opened airport. Chandler Field was retained by the city of Fresno as a reliever airport and continues to operate as the Fresno Chandler Executive Airport.
The California Air National Guard moved to the airport in the 1950s and established the Fresno Air National Guard Base on the southeast corner of the property. The guard also built munition storage bunkers along the northern edge of the airport grounds. The 194th Fighter Squadron moved to the facility in late 1954, followed by the 144th Fighter Wing in 1957. As the guard moved in, a second parallel runway (11R/29L) was constructed and opened to traffic in 1956.
A new, larger passenger terminal started to come together in 1959 along the southern portion of the airport. The main building comprised three areas: a baggage claim area, the central lobby, and the ticketing area. Although significantly renovated, that building still stands today and still serves the same functions. From the central lobby, passengers used an underground tunnel to reach the open-air, remote concourse where they boarded planes from ground level boarding gates.
The current air traffic control tower was also constructed around the same time as the passenger terminal and opened shortly after in 1961.
The jet age arrived in Fresno in 1967 when Pacific Air Lines became the first airline to schedule jet service to the airport. The carrier used the Boeing 727-100 to operate nonstop service to both Los Angeles and San Francisco. United was the dominant carrier at the airport in the mid-1970s, operating daily DC-8 service to Denver and multiple daily jet services to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Hughes Airwest and PSA also served the airport with jets.
The first significant expansion to the passenger terminal came in 1978 when a concourse was built straight out from the central lobby. This building, unlike the original remote concourse, was both enclosed and climate controlled.
The airport saw significant down-gauging following airline deregulation. By 1983, United had withdrawn from intrastate service at Fresno, and the airport mainly saw turboprops operated by smaller carriers. Delta operated mainline jets to Los Angeles, Salt Lake City and Reno in the mid 1990s, but by 1999, the only mainline jet service remaining at Fresno was a daily American flight to Dallas/Fort Worth.
Fresno has been the headquarters for at least three airlines in its history. In the mid-1980s, Far West Airlines was founded in Fresno and used the airport as a small intrastate hub serving Burbank, Los Angeles, Modesto, Oakland, Orange County, Sacramento and San Jose. Air 21 was founded in Fresno in January 1994 and operated service between several western cities before ceasing operations in January 1997. Allegiant Air was founded in Fresno in January 1997, and its headquarters were located in the city until it declared bankruptcy in 2000, and the new CEO moved its headquarters to a suburb of Las Vegas.
In 1996, the airport's name was changed from Fresno Air Terminal to Fresno Yosemite International Airport to attract out-of-state and international visitors to Yosemite National Park to the airport. Despite the new name, scheduled international commercial flights would not begin operating in Fresno for nearly a decade. At the time, airport managers petitioned the FAA for a new identifier code to replace FAT, which carries a negative connotation and no longer matched the initials of the airport. The request was denied, with the FAA reaffirming its long-standing policy to only issue a new identifier code when an airport is physically relocated (such as in 1995 when Denver Airport was moved out of Stapleton).
Expansion and remodeling
At the turn of the 21st century, the city began a series of projects that would expand and remodel the passenger terminal. The first and most notable project was the expansion of the concourse building. The project, designed by DMJM Aviation extended the terminal further northeast and created a new two-level section with six jetbridges. Before this project passengers boarded all planes using stairs or ramps. When completed in 2002, the new concourse building received praise for its design and was named one of the top 10 projects in Fresno Architecture for the decade with critics commending the use of steel and the curved glass facade.
A new Federal Inspection Services facility for international arrivals was completed in early 2006, giving federal officials space to check passports and complete customs work. Completion of that facility allowed Fresno to begin receiving scheduled international commercial flights. The first international service started in April 2006 with Mexicana operating flights between Fresno and Mexico City with an intermediate stop in Guadalajara.
With the new concourse extension and new international arrivals facility completed, older portions of the terminal building were given a major renovation. The project was designed CSHQA and completed in several phases between 2006 and 2010. While keeping the facility operational, nearly every part of the building was updated including the baggage claim area, security checkpoint, central lobby, ticketing area, and low-level concourse. The centerpiece of the project was the construction of a life-size, replica sequoia forest in central lobby, reflecting the airport's role as a gateway to the nearby national parks. The giant trees appear to be supporting the roof of the terminal and are surrounded by the split rail fencing and granite curbs that visitors see at national parks.
A consolidated rental car facility opened at the airport in 2009. The $22 million project allows customers of most rental car companies to pick up and drop-off vehicles just outside the terminal. The project also included the construction of maintenance buildings and storage lots on a nearby, 11-acre site.
Direct international service from Fresno briefly ended in August 2010 when Mexicana ceased operations. International service resumed, with more flights, less than a year later when both Aeroméxico and Volaris added service between Fresno and Guadalajara in April 2011.
The secondary runway (11R/29L) was widened, lengthened and strengthened in a $30 million project completed in October 2012.