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Turbulent skies

Air Canada's flight path not without its rough patches

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An Air Canada Embraer 190 takes off.


An Air Canada Embraer 190 takes off.

"If God had meant man to fly, he wouldn't have invented Air Canada."

So joked Peter Newman -- although Ottawa-based aircraft aficionado Peter Pigott's book tells a different story.

Pigott, an aviation instructor at Algonquin College, has written 18 books, most of which have a historical or aviation theme.

The airline we know today as Air Canada was founded in 1937 as Trans-Canada Air Lines. It was a Crown corporation based on social ideals -- not intended to make a profit, but to help unite the country. Its goal was to transport mail, passengers and freight -- in that order.

TCA's first flight, between Vancouver's Sea Island and Seattle's Boeing Field on Sept. 1, 1937, took just 50 minutes, and was a mail flight cruising at 2,000 feet, its schedule dictated by the post office to coincide with mail delivery. Although not carrying any paying passengers, it was full of corporate dignities and guests.

It was a time when stewardesses, as flight attendants were then referred to, were all female. Company regulations dictated they be registered nurses and had to have their parents' consent to fly. (They also had to be single and retire upon marriage or age 30, whichever came first.)

Looking back, it's hard to imagine the controversy surrounding the name change to Air Canada in 1964. It sparked a furor throughout English Canada; many thought the new name was too French, and was another example of the federal government pandering to the whims of the Québécois.

A customer survey from that same year, meanwhile, revealed a variety of complaints, most concerning baggage handling, unhelpful staff, unappetizing meals and slow check-in procedures. Nice to know some things never change.

Company president Gordon McGregor raised the ire of U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson when he announced Air Canada would be starting scheduled flights to Moscow in 1966 -- the first North American airline to do so, just four years after the Cuban missile crisis.

Winnipeg was the original maintenance base for the company, and Pigott recalls an incident in the mid-1980s when a former employee spotted one of the original TCA Lockheed Electras in Texas. It was acquired and flown to Winnipeg for refurbishment, lovingly restored to its former glory by local staff who volunteered their time and effort for nothing more than a commemorative crest and pride in a job well done.

Air Canada flew the plane across the country to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The aircraft (CF-TCC) was eventually returned to Winnipeg and retired to the Western Canada Aviation Museum.

Sadly, there's no mention of the airline's decision to outsource its fleet maintenance to Aveos a few years ago -- a decision that would ultimately lead to the closure of its Winnipeg maintenance base and the loss of thousands of jobs.

Pigott cites a revealing incident when incoming CEO Robert Milton was given a tour of head office in the late 1990s. Asking why all the windows were covered with brown paper, he was told that those employees were below the pay scale that qualified them for a window in their cubicle.

Even more revealing was Milton's adventure during the 9/11 tragedy. Stranded in London with all trans-Atlantic flights grounded, then-minister of transport David Collenette was able to pull some strings and get him home on a specially chartered flight from Germany escorted across the ocean by military jets. Upon landing in Canada, a grievance was filed against him by the Air Canada Pilots Association for taking a flight with a non-company pilot.

Like most airlines, Air Canada has struggled with bad weather, fuel prices, foreign exchange rates, labour problems, accidents and political meddling. It survived privatization, de-regulation, political scandals (including the infamous Airbus scandal involving Karlheinz Schreiber and former prime minister Brian Mulroney), hostile takeover attempts, hijackings and a merger with its biggest rival, Canadian Airlines.

While this book is obviously well-researched, Pigott's writing style is a bit dry in places. The book would benefit from a few more anecdotes and human-interest perspectives, and the author's obsession with every political machination behind the privatization and merger with Canadian Airlines gets a bit tedious.

Aviation and history buffs (as well as past and present Air Canada employees) will enjoy Air Canada: The History. It's well-illustrated, with plenty of archival photographs that tell a fascinating story of both the airline and Canada.


Trevor Smith is an engineering research technician at the University of Manitoba and a community journalist who has spent over 20 years working in the aerospace industry.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 12, 2014 G8


Updated on Saturday, April 12, 2014 at 8:09 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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