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In the 1950s, Gander International Airport was the only part of Canada that many travellers saw on transatlantic flights between the United States and Europe.Greg Locke/The Globe and Mail

Reg Wright, the president and CEO of the Gander International Airport Authority, holds open the door into the hallway and apologizes for the chill.

“It’s cold enough in here to hang a moose,” he says.

In Newfoundland and Labrador terms, that means it feels a bit like walking through a meat locker on your way to Gander’s international departures lounge.

Mr. Wright is leading a visitor from the mainland through what used to be one of the busiest airport terminals in the country. In the 1950s, Gander was the only part of Canada that many travellers saw on transatlantic flights between the United States and Europe.

In that pre-jet era, planes couldn’t fly across the ocean without refuelling, so Gander was a critical stop for airlines carrying moneyed tourists from one continent to the other. The federal government spent a lot to make the international departures lounge an impressive display of Modernist design – complete with the finest furniture, a terrazzo floor, cocktail bar, sculptures and a stunning 70-foot mural.

“They didn’t want anyone to think this was some kind of outpost, all beaver hats and canoes,” Mr. Wright says.

The airport’s cosmopolitan honeymoon ended as aviation improved and planes no longer needed to stop in Newfoundland before hopping across the pond. It has seen a steady decline ever since. In 1991, the airport saw 1.1 million travellers. In 2021, that was down to about 63,330 passengers – roughly a third of pre-pandemic levels.

Today, the international departures lounge sees few international travellers at all. Instead, its future is as a historic attraction and community hub designed to celebrate Gander’s central role in the golden age of aviation. Among its highlights is Newfoundland’s oldest escalator, a wood-panelled moving staircase that was installed in 1958 and is now being restored to working order.

Mr. Wright hopes the space – with a new theatre, gallery and room for heritage preservation – will be reopened to the public in June, after a $1.5-million restoration to return it to its former glory. He wants the lounge to become a tourist destination for people who want a glimpse of a time when air travel was still glamorous.

The airport’s history is as colourful as the egg tempera mural that overlooks its famous lounge. As a refuelling stop for flights between Moscow and Havana, Gander was once a preferred destination for Soviet defectors. In 1990 alone, almost 2,000 refugees from countries as diverse as Cuba, Bulgaria, Lebanon, Haiti, China, Iran and Sri Lanka stepped off planes here and sought a new life in the West.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Gander International hosted 38 planes, with 6,122 passengers and 473 crew, that were rerouted due to the terrorist attacks – a story retold in the Broadway musical and movie Come From Away.

The federal government spent a lot to make the international departures lounge (above) an impressive display of Modernist design. Reg Wright (top) said he wants the lounge to become a tourist destination for people who want a glimpse of a time when air travel was still glamorous.Greg Locke/The Globe and Mail

The irony of an airport lounge that no longer caters to air travellers, but to tourists who arrive by bus, isn’t lost on Mr. Wright.

“It’s relevance to passengers in transit has obviously changed,” he says. “The use of space has also changed, and we’re in a position now where we can invite non-passengers back to see it.”

Of course, he also wants his airport to continue to be a relevant hub for air travel. It’s renovating its outsized terminal into a more modern, smaller, efficient space. But he knows it will still be years before Gander’s passenger levels, and those of other regional airports, return to pre-pandemic levels, if they get there at all. Some routes and passengers may never return.

“There are people who have taken their last flight, we know that,” he says. “But I see a light at the end of the tunnel, and I see some reasons for confidence this summer. I think international travel is going to take longer, but domestic travel, there’s some real promise.”

For six months last year, there was no national air service in Gander at all, after Air Canada suspended flights to many cities across Atlantic Canada. All Sunwing international fights out of Gander were also cancelled this winter because of restrictions on re-entry into Canada.

Today, some of those routes have come back, but the airport is projecting significantly reduced revenues until at least 2025. Mr. Wright knows that if Gander is going to survive, it has to find other sources of income, like leasing out some of its abundant land holdings and finding new ways to capitalize on its unique history.

“The recovery will come first to the major urban centres, like Toronto, Calgary, Montreal and Vancouver,” he says. “But for smaller airports like us, we’re kind of braced to be last dogs to the bowl.”

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