23 June 2015

Book Review: Air Canada - The History

  • Air Canada - The History
  • by Peter Pigott
  • Published by Dundurn Press, Toronto, Ontario, 1 March 2014
  • 10" X 7" soft cover, also available in PDF and ePub digital formats
  • 328 pages, including notes, further reading and index
  • $35.00 in hard copy and PDF, $16.99 in ePub

Peter Pigott's recently published history of Air Canada is surprisingly readable, and while not as gripping as a mystery story whose ending is unknown, this book will keep you reading right to the end.

Pigott has researched his subject well from original sources, archives, interviews and papers and presents it in chronological fashion, starting from the formation of Trans Canada Airlines in 1937. Not a commercial enterprise when it was conceived, the fledgling national air carrier was created as a part of Canadian National Railway and as a policy instrument to establish something that Canada lacked, a national airline. In those days there were lots of small air carriers, but none provided more than local service; no one was flying passengers or freight coast to coast.

It had actually been the short-lived Conservative government under RB Bennett that started the construction of a national series of airfields and navigation facilities as a Great Depression relief effort, to provide work for unemployed men. The Trans Canada Airway was inherited by the Liberal Mackenzie King government in 1935, almost complete. All it lacked was an air service to use it. TCA was born as a result and given a monopoly on the airway. It was to be a "social instrument - an essential service like the provincially owned electricity companies or the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, designed to bind the country together...." The first minister responsible was the irrepressible CD Howe. The first flight was flown from Vancouver airport in a Lockheed 10A Electra to Seattle, on 1 September 1937.

The airline went on to fly a wide variety of aircraft including the Avro Lancastrian, Canadair North Star, Vickers Vanguard and Viscount and the jets, the Douglas DC-8 and DC-9, the Lockheed L-1011, the Boeing 747 and 727 and the Airbus A320, A340 and A319.

Pigott goes on to detail the airline's life in a good level of detail, including the decisions made in the executive suite, the political interference suffered, the aircraft purchased and sold, the organization, uniforms, the strikes and other challenges. Much of the tale is told with the spectre of privatization hanging over the whole endeavour, something wholeheartedly supported by most of the leadership over the years and only completely achieved in July 1989.

The author divides the story up by company president, with chapters on the years dominated by Gordon McGregor, Yves Pratte, Claude Taylor, Pierre Jeanniot, and finally the Americans, Hollis Harris, Lamar Durrett and Robert Milton. The book ends in 2002, leaving the newer tales for a future volume.

Pigott includes pretty much everything, the crashes (including the "Gimli Glider" incident), the national and regional politics and the politics of routes, the early computer reservation systems, finances, cabotage and rights granted, competition with Canadian Pacific, Pacific Western, Wardair and WestJet, customer complaints about poor service, the takeover of the ailing Canadian Airlines, even the "Airbus Scandal" of the Mulroney years. The book is illustrated with many photos of the aircraft, the designer uniforms, aircraft paint schemes and the key people involved. He also covers the regional and budget air services Air Canada started: Air Canada Connector, Jazz, Tango, Zip and even AeroPlan, the customer loyalty "points" system. Even though he shows obvious keen interest in the subject, Pigott is a consummate historian and the reader never feels like this is a "fan" work, but always a passionate, but unbiased history.

I have to admit when I picked this book up I thought, "how interesting can a history of Air Canada really be?" But the author tells a story worth relating and he makes it engaging, if not gripping. I think this is a book that anyone interested in aviation or just general Canadian history will enjoy and find hard to put down.

The book's publisher, Dundurn Press of Toronto, is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council.

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