On a Wing and a Prayer

The following, which is based on actual events, is not meant to ridicule American management style. I am sure it is an aberration and 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 religious beliefs 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 Montréal, 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 persuaded 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 in Continental, allowing the airline to emerge from its second bankruptcy.

Senior management meetings, under the new leadership 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. In the boardroom, on a large expanse of bare carpet reserved for such occasions, all would get down on their knees. Arms raised toward heaven and heads bowed, they prayed to God, asking for His help in running the airline.

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? Yet still, the Lord refused to take part in Air Canada’s business.

Perhaps God was not interested because he would have to deal with females, something that also made Holy Harry uncomfortable. Did the Bible not say that a woman’s place was in the home? Not taking any chances, Holy Harry told his Vice-President of Personnel that all women in senior positions at Air Canada must be banished forthwith, and there were thirteen of them.

Compassion was shown to those few who were close to retirement. These women could keep their job if they agreed not to engage their god-fearing leader and tried to stay out of sight. Others were given generous incentives to leave and admonished never to talk about their experience, lest they lose those magnanimous packages.

Still no God!

Maybe the Almighty's lack of interest in Air Canada’s affairs was because of the company’s past sins. It was whispered that a former chairman had accepted money from lobbyists for Airbus to favour their manufacturer's planes over Boeing. It’s possible the rumours were mere revenge on the part of disgruntled aircraft mechanics and aeronautical engineers who, unlike the decision-makers, did not see the inherent value of maintaining two fleets of airplanes from two separate companies on two different continents, and the cost and logistical nightmare of implementing such a decision.

To quash this ugly rumour, the help of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) was sought. This once proud, competent police force, whose investigations—whether into bombings of aircrafts by Sikh terrorists, poisoning of the blood supply, corrupt politicians or war criminals—took so long that the perpetrators 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.

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 show them the way to profitability? Not really.

Perhaps tired of asking God to intervene and not knowing how to make a profit operating an airline without divine guidance—as attested by the bankruptcy of his previous company—Holy Harry, in the Enron tradition, turned to accounting. If you couldn’t show profits flying your planes, maybe selling them was the answer, in the short run anyway. 

The short run was all that mattered if you were about to leave the running of the airline to another southern gentleman and wanted to claim that, when you left, under God and your leadership, Air Canada showed a substantial increase in revenue and the bankruptcy of that other airline was just an accident.

So it came to pass. Air Canada sold its planes and leased them back, exchanging short-term gain for long-term debt, and Holy Harry could return to southern climes with his head held high, handing over 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 official media at the time, his predecessor was reportedly told by the government of the day to "eliminate Canadian Airlines," Air Canada's Canadian 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 Canadian Airlines.

Robert Milton may not have understood that in Canada, this just wasn’t done. As a consequence of forcing Canadian Airlines out of business, Air Canada had to find jobs for its laid off employees, assume a large portion of the company’s debt and take over redundant assets.

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, when his compatriots developed a fear of flying.

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

Bernard Payeur, May 2004.

Michelle Monette