Until 1999 the airport was known as Coolangatta Airport. This is an Aboriginal word meaning "Place of Good View". It originally consisted (1936) of three grass strips with the intention of only providing an emergency landing ground for airmail aircraft transiting between Brisbane and Sydney. Passenger flights took off for the first time in 1939 using the then grassy field of the current Coolangatta site. Regular services were started by Queensland Airlines and Butler Air Transport after the Second World War. Ansett started its own services in 1950 using DC-3s, while Trans Australia Airlines did the same in 1954 using DC-3s, too, as well as DC-4s and Convairs to link other Australian cities.
By 1958 the taxiways and runways were fully paved, with the latter upgraded a decade later to allow jet operations with DC-9 and L-188 Electra aircraft to begin. The current terminal, known as the Eric Robinson Building, was officially opened in 1981 by Acting Prime Minister Douglas Anthony, when at the time more than 650,000 passengers were using the airport. The following year, the main runway was lengthened to 2,042 m (6,699 ft), thus permitting the use of wide-body jets by the two domestic operators Ansett Australia and Trans Australia Airlines and their Boeing 767 and Airbus A300 respectively on flights from Melbourne and Sydney.
On 1 January 1988 the airport ownership was transferred from the government to the Federal Airports Corporation. Its full privatisation occurred a decade later, when it was taken over by Queensland Airports Limited (QAL) on 29 May 1998. By 1999 the company's name had changed to become Gold Coast Airport Pty Ltd (GCAPL). The airport suffered from the collapse of Ansett in 2001 – Ansett had operated direct services from the Gold Coast to 12 Australian destinations.
In 2003 GCAPL was taken over by QAL, which today also owns and operates Mount Isa Airport, Townsville Airport and Longreach Airport.
Despite the name change from Coolangatta Airport to Gold Coast Airport during the change of ownership, the airport retains its original IATA Airport code, OOL.
In 1990 the airport welcomed its first international charter service from New Zealand, and by 1999 Air New Zealand low-cost subsidiary Freedom Air started scheduled no-frills service from Hamilton, New Zealand with Boeing 737s. In 2007 the airport celebrated the arrival of AirAsia X, which began services directly to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Tiger Airways Australia, which started services to Melbourne. Subsequently, the airport has had flights from Air Pacific from Nadi, Fiji. Jetstar to Tokyo and Osaka. Services to New Zealand increased as well, with Jetstar, Air New Zealand and Pacific Blue flying to Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Airnorth also started services to the airport from Darwin, via Mount Isa. In addition, Virgin Blue announced direct services from Canberra and Townsville. This opened up connections between all three QAL-owned airports – Mount Isa Airport, Townsville Airport and Gold Coast Airport.
2010 saw Jetstar announce the airport as its newest hub, increased services to Cairns and new direct services to Perth (discontinued in 2013) and Queenstown. Tiger Airways also announced their newest base at Avalon Airport in Geelong, and said that services from Avalon to the Gold Coast would commence later in the year; however, services to Adelaide would be cut due to delays in receiving new aircraft which were intended for their new Avalon base.
On 26 October 2010 Gold Coast Airport was named the 2010 Major Airport of the Year 2010 by the Australian Airports Association (AAA).