Could Austin’s gateway to the world be renamed after a Texas political titan?
Yes, if the LBJ Foundation has anything to say about it. The Austin organization has quietly begun a campaign to rename Austin-Bergstrom International Airport after President Lyndon Baines Johnson – a shrewd politician from the Hill Country whose mixed legacy includes helping pass landmark civil rights legislation while driving the United States deeper into the Vietnam War.
Austin Mayor Kirk Watson has discussed the renaming idea with the LBJ Foundation, a nonprofit that raises money for the LBJ Presidential Library and LBJ School of Public Affairs.
Watson briefly spoke with the foundation’s president and CEO Mark Updegrove about the proposal outside the LBJ Library in early September, emails obtained under the Texas Public Information Act show. Watson later told Updegrove he liked the idea.
They made plans to meet again on Oct. 6. Two major figures in Texas politics were invited: former Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes and Larry Temple, a former White House counsel to the late president. Both have close ties to the LBJ Foundation.
It’s not clear when the discussions about changing the airport’s name began, but emails show one of the mayor’s staffers prepared a short report on the Federal Aviation Administration’s renaming process in August.
“We’ve had a preliminary conversation with foundation officials about this proposal,” Watson told KUT in a statement. “We’ll have a lot more conversations with a lot more people throughout the community as we explore this idea.”
Updegrove, an author and presidential historian, told KUT he and Watson discussed changing the airport’s name as part of celebrations planned for next year to mark the 60th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. The sweeping legislation banned racial segregation and made employment discrimination illegal. It was signed into law by President Johnson.
“President and Mrs. Johnson would surely be honored at the prospect of the airport being named for him,” Updegrove said in a statement. “The LBJ Foundation stands ready to work with the Mayor’s office, the city of Austin, and members of the Austin community toward its realization.”
Changing the name would need City Council approval, airport spokesperson Sam Haynes said.
“An airport name change … is not something that (the Aviation) Department staff would initiate,” Haynes said in a statement. “We would coordinate at the appropriate time following any policy changes made by the Austin City Council.”
The FAA doesn’t approve or deny airport name changes, but the agency does require months of paperwork before recognizing a new airport name. The administrative tasks include modifying federal grant agreements and changing air traffic control maps.
This renaming effort is young, and so far, city aviation staff aren’t working on it. U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin) and City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes both represent the area. They both said they were unaware of the proposal.
Changing an airport name isn’t cheap
Las Vegas recently renamed McCarran International Airport after the late U.S. Sen. Harry Reid, Nevada’s longest-serving senator. The Clark County Board of Commissioners voted to make the change in February 2021. By that Christmas, the airport was officially Harry Reid International Airport. Changing the signs would take another year.
Signage was the most expensive cost, according to Clark County documents. The two largest marquee signs at the Las Vegas airport cost more than $3 million alone. The project’s price tag was on track to exceed $7.7 million, according to a budget summary released in November.
The Las Vegas airport name change was paid for with private donations. After 30 years in the U.S. Senate, Reid had a lot of friends.
LBJ’s history with the airport goes back to 1943
Lyndon B. Johnson’s name is stamped on buildings and institutions all over Central Texas. The city-owned airport is no exception.
In 1999, Bergstrom Air Force Base was converted to a civilian facility: Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. The Austin City Council named the East Runway after former Congressman J. J. Pickle. The West Runway was dedicated to LBJ.
Bergstrom Air Force Base got its name from the first Austinite known to have been killed in World War II: John August Earl Bergstrom.
The Austin High School graduate died on Dec. 10, 1941, as Japanese forces invaded the Philippines in an attempt to seize U.S. military installations, according to an official history. The air assault came three days after the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor.
Less than two years later, Del Valle Army Air Base was renamed after Bergstrom at the urging of then-U.S. Rep. Lyndon B. Johnson.
If Austin were to name the city-owned airport after the country’s 36th president, the airport code AUS would remain the same. Changing the airport location identifier could be done through a much longer process, the FAA says.
The airport code LBJ is already taken anyway – by Komodo Airport in Indonesia.
KUT’s Audrey McGlinchy contributed to reporting on this story.
This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.
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