Estimated reading time 12 minutes, 46 seconds.
Back in 1936, a crew of labourers began to carve an airport out of the wilds of Newfoundland. Few, if any, of them had likely seen an airplane. The site was isolated and unsettled, but Gander became a classic case of the if you build it, they will come phenomenon. As the airport grew and flourished, the people came.
Gander is very unique in that the airport preceded the community. There would be no community here if not for the airport, said Reg Wright, director of marketing for the Gander International Airport Authority. Aviation is completely intertwined with our history, culture and lifestyle.
Selected for its strategic location on the Great Circle Route over the Atlantic Ocean, the Gander airport opened in 1938, and was the largest airport in the world by 1940.
Its location and infrastructure thrust Gander into the spotlight when the Second World War erupted in September 1939. With its four paved runways, the airport became the main launch point for ferrying thousands of North American-built aircraft to Europe. According to Wright, as many as 10,000 Canadian, American and British troops were stationed at Gander during the war.
The Ultimate’ Airport
The military activity highlighted Gander potential as a refuelling and service depot for trans-Atlantic flight. The world major airlines, including Trans-Canada Air Lines (later Air Canada), launched overseas passenger service shortly after the war ended in 1945. All flights stopped in Gander along the way. Throughout the 1950s, Gander was one of the busiest international airports and was often referred to as the crossroads of the world.
Gander unique claim to fame is that back in 1959 when the terminal was built, it was the ultimate airport, with big runways and beautiful facilities, said Brian Hicks, director of safety and airside operations at Gander International. We had the airport that everyone was trying to build. All traffic out of major U.S. hubs followed a corridor over Gander, because of course the aircraft of the day had a shorter range, and had to refuel.
The original terminal building is still used today. It a living museum, said Wright. The international lounge in particular has not changed. The chairs are the same, with the same terrazzo floor from Italy. Every year, people come and visit, and collectors are always offering to buy vintage items.
When the international lounge was constructed, no expense was spared. It represented Canada chance to shine in the global spotlight, so every effort was made to put the country best and most modern foot forward.
It was a totally different era, explained Wright. There would be great lines of people waiting for the makeup stools in the women washroom. The first escalator in Newfoundland was in the international lounge, and it had the province first liquor licence. It was an age when travel was glamorous.
Many notable figures have passed through the airport over the years, from Nikita Khrushchev and Fidel Castro (who famously went tobogganing with local children in the 1960s), to Marilyn Monroe and Queen Elizabeth. More recently, Gander has hosted Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Shakira, Tiger Woods, and guests bound for the 2006 Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes wedding in Italy.
We cater to the corporate jet market, said Wright. The first rule of servicing famous people is you can’t be star struck, although it does depend on the celebrity. John Travolta, for example, has been known to do his Staying Alive routine upon request from the catering staff, even though I’m sure he tired of it! The ladies just love it.
Gander heyday ended with the introduction of extended-range jets in the 1960s. Our story has been about change, noted Wright. Aviation grows in leaps and bounds, and aircraft became more fuel efficient and had longer range.
During the Cold War and before the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989, Aeroflot and many other Communist airlines stopped at Gander, en route to Cuba from Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union. Hicks remembers those days as interesting times.
We had 60 international flights a week from Communist countries. We had our own RCMP detachment, immigration and customs. We were kept busy dealing with defections often people would deplane and run across the airport, try to jump fences and get away, he said. Canada tightened its customs and immigration policies to solve the problem.
Although the air traffic circling over the town of Gander has thinned out since trans-Atlantic travel was first introduced, the airport still plays an important role.
There are a quarter million flights over the Atlantic every year that red circle us in case something goes wrong, said Wright. It an important part of what we do. We’re a little airport with big infrastructure, and we play the role of the lifeboat in the North Atlantic¦ . if someone has chest pains, or the coffee pot is smoking in the galley, or there inclement weather, they will seek refuge at Gander, more often than not.
On Sept. 11, 2001, with U.S. airspace closed due to the terrorist attacks, Gander International Airport welcomed 39 airliners as part of Operation Yellow Ribbon. Stories of the East Coast hospitality that was extended to stranded passengers in both Gander and Halifax, N.S., are legendary.
9-11 was a prime example of the part we can play in the world of aviation, said Hicks. Everybody started heading for a place to land and we were a natural choice, just because of our location and infrastructure.
Survival through Reinvention
Wright said the current challenge for the Gander International Airport Authority, which operates the airport, is reinventing the facility to make it more relevant to today aviation industry.
From my perspective, I look at the now.’ We have a rich history, but I try not to let it drag behind us, he explained. A lot of our reinvention has come through some tough decisions about right-sizing’ the airport. Many of our staff members are multi-skilled and cross-trained; and we try to focus on new niches that show promise for long-term sustainable revenue corporate jet and military markets, for example.
To combat high operating costs, Wright said the airport also looks for non-traditional ways to make money: some of the land has been sold; local loggers have purchased timber rights for forested airport property; there is a quarry on the premises; and, the airport offers winter RV storage. We’re not afraid of just about anything to make a dollar. But, you really do have to focus on your core strengths. At the end of the day, an airport is a place where aircraft, people and cargo fly from.
In 2010, CYQX logged 35,905 aircraft movements. Airport revenue for the same year increased by $1.1 million over 2009, and domestic passenger traffic was up nine per cent compared to 2009. Currently, Gander services between 12 and 16 daily domestic flights.
Wright said that 55 to 60 per cent of airport revenues still come from international fuel stops, with many of those stops made by military aircraft. Any nation that has a military will come through Gander at some time. We do a good job of accommodating military crews and operations. Plus, there is a military presence here with CFB (Canadian Forces Base) Gander, so they feel comfortable. [Among other duties, crews at 9 Wing/CFB Gander provide 24-hour search and rescue services throughout Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as Northeastern Quebec.]
Also on the field at CYQX are four fixed base operators, a ground-handling service, the Newfoundland water-bomber fleet, flight training and charter companies, aviation parts manufacturers, maintenance service providers, and a local airline. The airport is also home to three Nav Canada facilities: the Area Control Centre (ACC), an air traffic control tower, and the International Flight Service Station (IFSS). Gander ACC handles about 400,000 aircraft movements annually through the busiest oceanic airspace in the world.
Meat and Potatoes Strategy
The airport authority sharp focus on cost reduction has paid off. The 2010 balance sheet showed a profit for the seventh consecutive year.
We try to stay lean and focus on our strengths, said Wright. We’re not in the business of chasing rainbows. We try to do things with a good probability of success. The last decade has been good to us based on an unsexy, go-forward, meat and potatoes strategy.
Early in 2011, a joint funding agreement between the airport authority and the provincial and federal governments resulted in $9.9 million for the airport. Several improvements are planned, including the resurfacing of runway 03/21, Gander 10,200-ft. strip, this summer.
We’re hoping to add paved shoulders [to 03/21] this year, said Hicks. I would like to see us upgrade airport infrastructure so we can continue to provide our current service level.
One thing the airport does not have to upgrade is its staff. When an aircraft lands at Gander, it in good hands. We have good, seasoned people here, said Hicks. We function well as a team. Everybody knows their role and we know how to deal with things. He added that his 36-member crew never knows how much international traffic will arrive on any given day. We could get an emergency with 10 minutes of notice. Things can change rapidly here, and we react quickly.
Gander International Airport has come a long way from heavily-wooded, uninhabited land in the 1930s to aviation North Atlantic safety net in the present day. Although it may no longer be a star on the world aviation stage, CYQX has successfully reinvented itself along the way, and now plays a critical supporting role in trans-Atlantic travel.