On a Wing and A Prayer

Flying Air Canada Into The Ground

The following, which is based on actual events, is not meant to ridicule American management style. I am sure it is an aberration and is not a reflection of the management practices of well-run American corporations.

There was once a very religious man who was president of Canada's national airline, Air Canada.

You would never have known about his faith in humanity's alleged all-powerful invisible friend if you met him at his place of work.

While he may have been a very Christian man, he was also a very competent manager. He didn’t wear his religion on his sleeve, nor did he let his Faith interfere with his work.

Claude Taylor, your typical, quiet, competent Canadian professional "made Air Canada into a world leader in air transportation".

One day, while crossing a street in Montreal, Claude was hit by a bus. Still recuperating from his injuries he attended a Christian fundamentalist conference in one of the Carolinas where he met with the Chairman, President and CEO of Continental Airlines Hollis Harris (Holy Harry to his friends and detractors) and convinced him to take the helm of Air Canada.

A few weeks before Holy Harry officially took over, Air Canada and its partners invested 450 million dollars in Continental allowing the airline to emerge from its second bankruptcy.

Air Canada management meetings under the new leader took on a distinctively religious tone. In times of crisis, Holy Harry would lead his vice-presidents in prayer asking the Almighty for guidance or His personal intervention. All would get down on their knees, arms raised towards heaven, heads bowed, begging Him to come on down and make things right.

The Almighty, even in the face of all this devotion, would not intervene. Perhaps more vice-presidents on their knees begging for His intervention would do the trick. But still, the Lord refused to take part in the running of Air Canada.

Perhaps the Lord did not wish to participate in running the airline because he would have to deal with women, something Holy Harry was also uncomfortable in doing. Did the Bible not say something about a woman’s place being in the home? Not taking any chances, Holy Harry told his Vice-President of Personnel that all women in senior positions at Air Canada be banished forthwith. There were thirteen of them.

Compassion was shown to a few who were close to retirement. These women could keep their job if they agreed not to engage our god-fearing leader and try to stay out of sight. Others were given generous incentives to leave and admonished never to talk about what they had seen or heard, lest they loose those generous packages.

The airline eventually showed a profit. With no more women running Air Canada and a plethora of vice-presidents pleading on their knees, had God finally decided to surreptitiously join Holy Harry's management team, perhaps disguised as the Holy Spirit, and shown them the way to profitability? Not really.

Perhaps the Alminthy's lack of interest in what was going on at Air Canada was because of past sins. It was whispered that a former Chairman of Air Canada had accepted money from lobbyists for AirBus to favour that manufacturer's planes over Boeing.

Perhaps the rumours were just revenge on the part of disgruntled aircraft mechanics and aeronautical engineers who, unlike the decision-makers, could not see the inherent value of maintaining two fleets of airplanes from two different companies, on two different continents and the cost and logistical nightmare of implementing such a decision.

To quash this rumour, the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) was sought. This once proud, competent police force whose investigations, whether they be about bombings of aircraft by Sikh terrorists, poisoning of the blood supply, corrupted politicians or war criminals took so long that the criminals had as much chance of being judged by Saint Peter as by an earth bound judge, was called into action.

After eight years, the RCMP abandoned their investigation, leaving the question of identifying and punishing the sinners to a higher authority.

Perhaps getting tired of asking God to intervene and not knowing how to make a profit from operating an airline without guidance from the Almighty, the bankruptcy of his previous company attesting to this lack of skill, Holy Harry, in the Enron tradition, turned to accounting.

If you couldn’t show profits flying your planes maybe you could if you sold them, in the short run anyway.

The short run was all that mattered if you wanted your president, who was about to pass the baton to another southern gentleman, to be able to claim that when he left, Air Canada, under God and his leadership had made a substantial profit and the bankruptcy of that other airline was just an accident.

So it came to pass, Air Canada sold its planes and then leased them back, exchanging short term gain for long term debt, and Holy Harry could return to Southern climes his head held high passing the baton of leadership to Robert Milton B.S., another Georgia Tech graduate.

Milton may not have feared God as much as he feared the competition, and while you can’t get rid of God, you can get rid of the competition. According to government media at the time, his predecessor was reportedly told by the government of the day "to eliminate Canadian Airlines", Air Canada's competitor.

No one from the government came forward to take credit for this extraordinary piece of advice, therefore, it may simply have been a self-serving excuse to proceed with the elimination of Air Canada's main Canadian competitor, before eliminating Air Canada itself as a serious competitor in international jet travel.

Robert Milton may not have understood that in Canada, this just wasn’t done. As a consequence, Air Canada had to find jobs for the people who worked at the doomed Canadian Airlines, assume some of its debt and take some of the equipment of the airline he forced out of business.

This, in and of itself, should not have been fatal. In fact it was a golden opportunity. Unfortunately, Robert Milton B.S. decided that the country was not big or mature enough to operate an international airline, something it had done quite well under the leadership of New Brunswick native Claude Taylor O.C., LL.D., F.C.M.A. Instead, Milton abandoned profitable international routes in favour of more flights to his native country, and he did this just before 9/11; just before his compatriots developed a fear of flying.

Perhaps God was too busy trying to save airlines going under south of the border to notice the now struggling airline in the land of the Northern Lights. The once proud airline that flew Canada’s colours around the world went bankrupt. Nothing was left for the lowly shareholders and little more for those contemplating retirement. Loyal service to Air Canada got you ten cents on the dollar for your pension.

People who remember Canadian Airlines and Air Canada when it was their airline, and an airline in more than name only, can only look to the sky with sadness, remembering the proud days when it was their planes that flew overhead and took them to exotic destinations all over the world.

Bernard Payeur, May 2004,

Rest In Pieces Air Canada

Air Canada as a sitcom!