By Josh Healey
There was a time when Ganderites congregated at the airport in droves — but certainly not to fly.
Instead, school children and people on their lunch break went to grab some chips or a pop and to eye-ball celebrities on their way to New York or Montreal or London.
And the people watching was good, too, as the international lounge was the haunt of Russian cosmonauts, British royalty and musical maestros.
These days, locals are only allowed into the lounge for special occasions. But, if Reg Wright has his way, the future of the Gander Airport will replicate some of its past success.
“You can’t recreate the past but you can bring the best parts of the past forward with you,” said Wright, who is the president and CEO of the Gander International Airport Authority (GIAA).
“People grew up with the international lounge as part of the iconography of their youth. It was a place where you could come and people watch and have an ice cream.”
Members of the public were again allowed to roam the lounge in June as the terminal celebrated 60 years since its opening.
And although a lot has changed over that time, Wright said the airport remains a key economic driver.
“The airport’s role hasn’t really changed,” he said. “It’s still a very important economic engine for the community.”
One aspect that has changed is the actual amount of aircraft landing at the airport.
Jack Pinsent, president of the Gander Airport Historical Society, estimated the airport could expect somewhere between 100 to 110 flights per day in its peak years.
However, because air travel was reserved for the rich, each plane probably only had around 65 passengers.
Given the evolution of aircraft, said Wright, the airport receives far fewer planes.
“Some people can’t reconcile it very well but modern technology has efficiency and dependability that doesn’t require stops for fuel. Gander was built, by and large, as a place for fuel. That’s been massive,” he said.
At this time, the airport facilitates somewhere between 10 and 12 corporate, international and military flights a day.
Wright said that although there are less planes, the airport still contributes some 1,200 jobs to the community and has various spin-off industries.
The GIAA is looking to foster a renewed interest in the town’s aviation industry.
Since June 15, over 100 tour groups have come to visit the international lounge — a key location in the hit Broadway musical Come From Away.
To reinvigorate the space and make it more welcoming to visitors, Wright noted $2.2 million in renovations have been planned to refinish the space and add a restaurant.
“It can be a place where the community gathers and a place where visitors go to see,” he said.
And like days gone by, the lounge may once again be open to locals looking to grab a pop.
“Right now, it’s sort of closed until we open. What our hope is that we’ll be open until we close,” said Wright.
When asked about the town’s burgeoning tourism industry, Come From Away star Petrina Bromley said people are drawn to Gander’s aviation history because it is also part of the present.
“The idea that you may even encounter some people who are a part of the story is really attractive,” she said.
But Gander has more charms than meeting Oz Fudge or former mayor Claude Elliott downtown.
“It’s a real special place beyond the Come From Away story because of its location and its history and how it’s been strategically used as a refuelling area,” said Bromley.
“That we get to shine an extra light on it is fantastic.”