Strong at 75

Kevin Higgins
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GIAA kicks off year-long celebration

It has played a role in world aviation history like no other airport, and it turned 75 on Nov. 30.

To mark the occasion, the Gander International Airport Authority (GIAA) hosted an open house Saturday in the airport’s renowned international lounge for GIAA officials, government representatives and members of the public.

According to GIAA chairperson, Fred Moffitt, the afternoon launch was one of many ways GIAA will celebrate the airport’s aviation history in the coming year, as those attending had the opportunity to tour a place that has carved its own place in aviation history — the international lounge — as well as enjoy a lunch and hear some history about the airport.

“It’s remarkable what Gander has seen since it began operations in 1938,” said Mr. Moffitt. “Our history, and the history of aviation itself, has always walked hand-in-hand.

“We have been through the early pioneering days of flight, when Gander was a crucial platform for those first forays into transatlantic traffic. We saw aviation move into its golden age. We saw the Concorde do its cold weather testing here. We saw thousands of eastern bloc immigrants slip through the Iron Curtain at Gander. We saw the world at its very worst and best during 9-11.

“This 75th anniversary provides us an opportunity to look back on our airport and the role it has played in defining this place and also our place within the world.”

One of the biggest definitions of the airport’s importance shortly after it began operations on Nov. 30, 1938 was becoming the main staging point for the movement of Allied aircraft to Europe during the Second World War.

According to Mr. Moffitt, more than 20,000 North American-built fighters (jets) and heavy bombers followed the opening of the airport.

However, the war wasn’t the real reason, as some may believe, why construction started for an airport in what is now known as the Town of Gander, according to Gary Vey, GIAA CEO and president.

“The airport was built for commercial purposes,” he said. “A lot of people think it was created for military reasons, but it wasn’t. It was built to cater to the demands to the fixed-wing flight across the ocean in the mid-30s.

“It quickly took on a different role when the war started in 1939. It became a military airport exclusively during the war. After the war, in 1945, the airport reverted back to commercial use, and the control and operation of it went to the Newfoundland government.”

Mr. Moffitt said, by the end of 1945, Pan-American World Airways, Trans-World Airline, Trans Canada Airlines (later Air Canada) and British Overseas Airway Corporation (later British Airways) began regular Atlantic air service through Gander.

“Gander handled 13,000 aircraft annually and a quarter million passengers,” he said. “This required a new $3 million terminal to be built and opened in June 19, 1959.”

Change would continue at the airport in Gander, including the airport being taken over by the Canadian government after Confederation and then handed over to GIAA in March 2001.

Change is still occurring today at the airport, according to Mr. Vey — and will into the future.

“The lack of technology, if I can call it that, created Gander, and the advent of technology has hurt it in recent years…planes no longer need to stop at Gander for fuel,” he said. “But this means our role has changed once again, and recently that change has been that we’re seeing dramatic growth of about 130 per cent in the last seven years in our domestic traffic.

“The airport is constantly evolving, and how we handle these changes will show our future success.”

Most recently, GIAA has looked towards revenue-generating diversification as a way to stay economically viable, including the sale and lease of commercial land.

“Things like this, reduces our dependency on such things as international traffic,” said Mr. Vey. “I’m more optimistic about the long-term future about our airport than I ever was. No one gave us a year or two to survive and we have nine straight years of profitability.”

As for the future, Mr. Vey said GIAA will have challenges to face, including what might be in store for that $3 million terminal built in 1959.

“It’s an albatross around our necks right now,” he said. “It’s about 106,000 square feet and we need about 35,000 square feet for our operations. The light and oil bill for this building for last year was almost $900,000.

“The board and a committee set up will look at this, and we should have a decision soon on what will happen.”

However, whatever decision is made in this regard, he said, this year is also a year of celebration and memories.

“I’m looking forward to the year to come and in celebrating this milestone. It’s going to be a fun year, and there will be a lot of activity in and around the airport and community as a result of the 75 years,” he said. “People should look on this as a real source of pride and I’m sure they do. How many airports have been around for 75 years?”

Organizations: Gander International Airport Authority, North American, Pan-American World Airways Trans-World Airline Trans Canada Airlines Later Air Canada British Overseas Airway British Airways

Geographic location: Gander, Europe, Newfoundland

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