Nfld. & Labrador

Nostalgia meets reinvention: Gander's legendary airport celebrates 60 years

As the Gander Airport terminal building celebrated a 60-year anniversary on Wednesday, executives with its airport authority are charting a course for their future.

The airport's future looks a lot like its past

Jerry Cramm, centre, gives a tour of the international departures lounge while overlooking Gander's airport runway. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

It's a treasure trove of stories: a place where history, celebrity, trivia and small-town curiosity mix.

You can stand at the same bar where Frank Sinatra was told to wait his turn, or sit in the same chair where it's said that Queen Elizabeth herself sat and fixed her hair.

The National Trust for Canada once called it the "most important modernist room" in the country — and If you know a guy, you can get in.

"I have to scan my eyeballs to get access to the international lounge," said Reg Wright, CEO of the Gander International Airport Authority.

The National Trust of Canada once called Gander Airport's international departures lounge the most important modernist room in Canada. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

On Wednesday, to mark the terminal's 60th anniversary, airport staff opened the celebrated international lounge for a public tour. It's opened from time to time for special occasions, or to accommodate requests from tours and community groups.

If Wright has his way, access is about to get a whole lot easier.

Jerry Cramm, a security guard at the Gander Airport, is a frequent tour guide for groups looking for access to the international lounge. He told a small group on Wednesday about Gander's response to the events of September 11, 2001. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"Right now, the international lounge, it's closed until it's open … Our hope is to get it to a position where it's open until closed," he said.

"It's behind glass, and what we'd like to do is sort of break the seal on it. Take it out of its vacuum and give it back to the community."

Change is coming to the Gander airport terminal, from the restaurant rebuild already underway inside the building, to the multi-million dollar renovation plans awaiting government financing.

The proposed redesign features an all-new building front. (Submitted by GIAA)

For Wright, the airport's future looks a lot like the past.

"We can use the international lounge as sort of a spine and a foundation to build around while we try to affect some positive change in the rest of the place," he said.

Air traffic controllers at the Gander International Airport in 1959. (Courtesy: Gar Lunney and Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board)

The change will be, in part, physical — Wright has lobbied for years about the need to "right-size" the terminal building and upgrade its heating and electrical units, which he estimates could save half a million dollars each year — but it will also be psychological.

"Like it was in its heyday, Gander's international lounge can be a place where the community gathers," he said.  

For that, he'll also be relying on a new restaurant offering. It's something "cool" and "trendy", according to Cory Abbott, the man overseeing the restaurant's construction. Something that hasn't been seen in Gander before — less pub, more "gastropub."

A proposed front of the yet-to-open Union East restaurant is shown in concept art. Manager Cory Abbott says the restaurant should open in July. (Submitted by Cory Abbott)

The new restaurant will be called Union East and Drink, a nod to the name of a community that was formed around the original Gander Airport terminal in 1945. Abbott hopes that restaurant becomes a destination not only for travellers but for people in the wider community.

"The airport has great history and tradition," he said. 

"It was always a centre of activity for the community, so trying to get back to that so that, you know, people see it not as just as an airport, but a place to come up and dine, or visit. So, you know, the restaurant now is the start of that." 

Same terminal, new look

The Airport Authority has abandoned plans it made in 2014 to build an all-new terminal, deciding instead to renovate its current home.

"It was really assessed at a time where you were looking at $140 barrel of oil. And you know yourself, everything in the economy, everything around fossil fuel pricing, the world has changed profoundly in that time," said Wright.

Fidel Castro, visiting the gift shop at Gander International Airport, in 1976. (Gander Historical Society)

News of an all-new building worried conservationists, who wanted the international departures lounge protected.

That included the National Trust for Canada, who put the lounge on a list of endangered sites.

Wright said there was never any appetite to see it dismantled, and with their new plan, it will be centre of the renovated building. He's optimistic it could re-open to the public by start of the next tourist season.

Changes to the international lounge itself could cost as much as $1.5 million — but Wright said there are commercial opportunities within the new space, like concessions and gift sales, that will bring some money back for the airport authority.

With a tourist boom, brought by the Broadway success of Come From Away, the timing is right.

Gander is celebrated in the hit Broadway musical, Come From Away. It's led to an influx of tourists to the province looking to see the town behind the musical. (Matthew Murphy)

"Everything has a life, right? And that lava will cool eventually, and the curtain will eventually close in some shape or form," Wright said.

"Simply put, I think we've got about five years to really make an impression that this is a place worth visiting."

And there's a broader financial incentive as well. Last year, the airport authority reported an accounting loss in their financial reports for the first time in 15 years, and passenger numbers dropped by 4 per cent.

Travellers overlook a 70-foot mural by Saskatchewan artist Kenneth Lochhead in this 1959 photo taken for the National Film Board of Canada. (Courtesy: Gar Lunney and Library and Archives Canada/National Film Board)

Even if Wright says he's more concerned about the next 30 years than the last 60, the Airport Authority is looking to the past for clues for its future.

"For many people in Gander there's the sense that the Golden Age has passed," Wright said.  

"For me, as an airport operator here, it's my job, not so much to wallow in the past but to use the past as positive springboard. Don't let it drag behind you like an anchor, it's not what Gander used to be, it's what it could be." 

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About the Author

Garrett Barry

Journalist

Garrett Barry is a CBC reporter based in Gander.

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