Built in part of the grounds of Speke Hall, Liverpool (Speke) Airport, as the airport was originally known, started scheduled flights in 1930 with a service by Imperial Airways via Barton Aerodrome near Eccles, Salford and Castle Bromwich Aerodrome, Birmingham to Croydon Airport near London. The airport was officially opened in mid-1933. By the late 1930s, air traffic from Liverpool was beginning to take off with increasing demand for Irish Sea crossings, and a distinctive passenger terminal, control tower and two large aircraft hangars were built.
World War II
At the beginning of 1937 Liverpool City Council leased between 70 and 110 acres of their Speke Estate on a 999-year lease to the Air Ministry. The price included at all times the use of Speke Airport next to the shadow factory site. The LMS Railway provided a siding. Erection of the building was planned to take 30 weeks and when complete it would provide employment for more than 5,000 people. It was to be managed by Rootes Securities on behalf of the Air Ministry. Work started Monday 15 February 1937.
During World War II, Speke was requisitioned by the Royal Air Force and known as RAF Speke. Rootes built in a "shadow factory" by the airport Bristol Blenheims and 1,070 Handley Page Halifax bombers. Lockheed Aircraft Corporation assembled many types of planes at the airport, including Hudsons and Mustang fighters, that had been shipped from the United States in parts to Liverpool Docks. The airport was also home to the Merchant Ship Fighter Unit.
On 8 October 1940 (one day before John Lennon's birth), Speke was witness to what is thought to be the fastest air-to-air combat "kill" in the Battle of Britain and possibly of all time. Flight Lieutenant Denys Gillam took off in his Hawker Hurricane from Speke to be confronted by a Junkers 88 passing across him. He shot the Junkers down while his undercarriage was still retracting, and, along with Alois Vašátko and Josef Stehlík, all of 312 Squadron, was credited with the kill. The moment has been caught in a painting by Robert Taylor called Fastest Victory.
Normal civil airline operations resumed after VE-day and passengers increased from 50,000 in 1945 to 75,000 in 1948, remaining ahead of Manchester Airport. Ownership by the Ministry of Aviation proved to be a drag on the airport's progress thereafter and Manchester gained the lead from 1949, resulting in Liverpool's loss of the only ground-controlled radar approach unit available to North West airports, further hampering operation.
During the post war years, Speke Airport hosted an annual air display in aid of the Soldiers, Sailors, and Air Force Association, a charity for veterans. The displays were immensely popular and attracted a huge crowd. On one such occasion on 21 May 1956 sadly tragedy struck with the death of Léon Alfred Nicolas "Léo" Valentin billed as the Birdman when his balsa wood wings struck the opening of the aircraft from which he was exiting and he was hurtled into an uncontrollable spin. He attempted to deploy his emergency parachute but it became entangled and 'roman candled' leaving Leo to fall to his death. The local newspaper headlined the story with "The world has been robbed of a daring personality". Ironically, a few years earlier Valentin had been attributed with discovering the free-fall stable position still used by sports parachutists today for safe deployment.
The city took over control of the airport on 1 January 1961 and prepared development plans. In 1966, a new 7,500 ft (2,286 m) runway was opened by Prince Philip on a new site to the southeast of the existing airfield. It enabled the airport to be open for business around the clock and is in use to this day. Control of the airport transferred to Merseyside County Council from Liverpool Corporation in the mid-1970s and then, ten years later, to the five Merseyside councils following the abolition of Merseyside County Council. In 1982, Pope John Paul II visited and met crowds at the old Liverpool airport.
Southern Terminal (1986)
A modern passenger terminal adjacent to the new runway opened in 1986 followed by the closure of the original 1930s building.
The original terminal building dating from the late 1930s, famously seen on early television footage with its terraces packed with Beatles fans, was left derelict until converted into a hotel, opening in 2001, preserving its Grade II listed Art Deco style. It was part of the Marriott chain of hotels, but is currently the Crowne Plaza Liverpool John Lennon Airport Hotel after a renovation in August 2008. The former apron of the terminal is also listed and retained in its original condition, although it is no longer connected to the airport or subject to airside access control. It is the home of several aircraft, including BAe Jetstream 41 prototype G-JMAC and Bristol Britannia G-ANCF, preserved by the Speke Aerodrome heritage Group. The two art-deco-style hangars that flank the terminal and apron have also been converted for new uses: one is now a David Lloyd leisure centre, the other the headquarters of the Shop Direct Group, called Skyways House.
In 1990 the airport was privatised, with British Aerospace taking a 76% shareholding in the new company. Subsequently, the airport has become a wholly owned subsidiary of Peel Holdings. In 2000, work on a £42.5 million passenger terminal began, tripling its size and passenger capacity, completed in 2002. There have since been further extensions. The airport's strategy is to cater largely for 'low cost' operators, and consequently the layout of the terminal and gates requires passengers to walk unprotected from the weather to and from passenger aircraft. Destinations served are throughout Europe, the 2007 scheduled services to the United States and Canada having been withdrawn.
Liverpool John Lennon Airport (2001)
2001 saw the airport being renamed in honour of John Lennon, a founding member of The Beatles, 21 years after Lennon's death - the first airport in the UK to be named after an individual. A 7 ft (2.1 m) tall bronze statue stands overlooking the check-in hall. On the roof is painted the airport's motto, a line from Lennon's song "Imagine": "Above us, only sky". In 2005 the Yellow Submarine, a large-scale work of art, was installed on a traffic island at the entrance to the airport. A permanent exhibition of The Beatles in India's photographs made in 1968 at the Ashram of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, (founder of the Transcendental Meditation technique), by Paul Saltzman can be seen above the retail units in the departure lounge. In 2005 a brand-new apron exclusively for EasyJet was constructed to the east of the terminal with six stands and a pier with six boarding gates.
In September 2006 reconstruction started on the main runway and taxiways. This was the first time the runway had been reconstructed (as opposed to resurfaced) since it was opened in 1966. This work was completed in 2007. In addition to runway and shoulder work was the upgrade of the 40-year-old airfield group lighting with a new system, intended to upgrade the runway to ILS Category III standards.
In 2007 construction of a multi-level car park and a budget Hampton by Hilton Liverpool/John Lennon Airport started. The hotel opened in October 2009. In June 2010 Vancouver Airport Services announced that it reached an agreement with The Peel Group to acquire 65% share in its airports, including Liverpool. Airside improvements include additional retail units and a more advanced security area aiming at reducing waiting times, completed in autumn 2010.
April 2014 saw Peel repurchase the 65% stake it had sold in the airport giving it 100% ownership once more. In March 2016, Peel sold a 20% stake in the airport to Liverpool City Council for a reported £12m. This valued the airport at £60m.
A master plan is in place to be completed by 2030 which plans for the airport to grow significantly. This includes new terminal buildings and the introduction of permanent long-haul services, as well as growing passenger numbers from 5 million a year to 7.8 million.