This feature is another in the series of aviation stories originally published in print magazines around the world. It was originally published in 2017 and as such, facts and dates are relevant to that time. There have been some minor adjustments but to all intents it is the same.
With Air Canada celebrating its 80th anniversary and as a founding member of the Star Alliance its 20th anniversary of membership, here is a look back at the last 20 years of this North American carrier.
2017 is a big year for Canada its inhabitants and its airline. The country is celebrating its 150th anniversary while its airline, Air Canada with its long and rich history, is celebrating its 80th birthday and to celebrate the airline is in the process of rolling out a new look.
The airline is currently made up of three divisions. The mainline carrier Air Canada, its leisure carrier Air Canada Rouge and Air Canada Express which is in fact four separate airlines, Jazz Aviation, Sky Regional, Exploit Valley Air Services (EVAS) and Air Georgian all working under contract to the main airline providing regional and charter services.
A lot has changed since the carrier became a founding member of Star Alliance in May 1997. At that point the airline had 219 aircraft and 24,000 employees and operated over 1,200 daily flights to over 120 destinations.
The Boeing 747-400 was still in operation on its long haul services however the airline was increasing the use the A340-300 having introduced the type two years earlier. It would go on to operate the A340-500 for just three years starting in 2004 until being replaced by the B777-200LR.
In 1999 the airline introduces the country to self service check in kiosks, something that is commonplace nowadays. It also sponsors that years Canadian Grand Prix.
As a direct result of Star Alliance collaboration, Air Canada and United Airlines initiate another service that we now take for granted. On June 14, 2000 the world’s first interline electronic ticket was introduced thereby enabling passengers to book itineraries on multiple airlines with the simple click of a mouse. The new millennium also brings with it the airlines first non stop flights to the Japanese capital of Tokyo.
One of its main rivals, Canadien Airlines was acquired through a merger on January 1,2001 and at the time made the airline the 12th largest in the world. Just 8 months later the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre towers in New York created a worldwide downturn in air traffic which led to the airline posting loss after loss which ultimately led to the airline seeking bankruptcy protection in April 2003
2001 also saw the Airline make its first venture into the low cost market. Air Canada Tango was launched as a low cost subsidiary to the main airline. Based at Toronto its name was purported to be derived from ‘tan’ and ‘go’ alluding to the sunny destinations it was to serve.
Air Canada used the 737-200’s it acquired in the Canadian merger along with a number of A320 to create the Tango subsidiary offering low-fare service on some of Air Canada's routes. Tango flew the major longer-distance routes between Canadian cities as well as sun destinations such as Florida.
The aircraft sported a purple tail and titles whilst still incorporating the maple leaf of the parent carrier.
Air Canadas regional operations were re organised with the introduction of the Jazz brand created in 2001 to encompass the operations of the then regional subsidiaries of Air BC, Air Nova, Air Ontario and Canadian Regional Airlines which mainly operated the BAe 146. However this division was subsequently made into a separate company in 2004 as part of the parent companies restructuring during its time in bankruptcy protection
2002 was an eventful year for the airline with the introduction of yet another low cost, no frills airline although this time outside of the parent operating under its own AOC and flight codes. Routes were mainly amongst the Western Canadian cities in direct competition with Westjet whose former CEO then heading up Zip. The aircraft were painted in one of four bright colours (green, orange fuchsia and blue) with ‘zip’ titles on the tail and configured with 118 economy seats. Both of these brands lasted just a short while. Tango ceased operations in 2003 and zip in 2004 with routes being absorbed back into the mainline fleet.
2002 was also the fifth anniversary of the Star Alliance with membership helping towards the employment 300,000 employees helping more than 300 million passengers each year to 729 airports in 124 countries.
It is also the airlines 65th anniversary with an A320 painted in a special commemorative livery which at its centre has a giant maple leaf created using the names of 40,000 employees and retirees. In a further celebration of this anniversary a Lockheed L10A Electra wearing the colours of Air Canadas predecessor Trans Canada airlines (TCA), refurbished by employees , flew from Toronto to Ottawa.
In October Air Canada launches Jetz, a new charter business that arranges special travel for pro sports teams, putting four Boeing 737s into service with extra legroom and a total of 48 seats onboard. This service is also used by politicians for their electoral campaigns. The aircraft sport the word ‘jetz’ in black under the main title on the aircraft fuselage.
In 2004 in what Air Canada reports as an industry first is the creation of a passenger self managed, prepaid flight pass for frequent Toronto-Montreal and Toronto-Ottawa flyers. During this year the airline introduces a new brand. Aircraft are now being painted in the mainly light green livery which is only now being superseded. The inflight product is also enhanced as well as the interiors of the aircraft as in 2005 the era of the seat back on demand entertainment system is adopted by Air Canada.
On July 20, 2005 the airline introduces not only a new aircraft type but a new manufacturer when the inaugural Embraer 175 flight takes off from Toronto bound for New York. The airline currently has 25 E175 and a further 25 E190. Later on that year the airline is the first foreign carrier to airlift supplies to New Orleans following Katrina as well as taking trip into there music business by flying U2 in a special liveried A320 on their Vertigo Tour, which grosses US$260-million in 110 sold-out concerts.
In 2007 and with the airline celebrating its 70th anniversary its new Boeing 777-300ER start arriving. The aircraft are configured with 42 Executive First Suites and 307 seats in Economy Class and the new 777-200LR that will be operated on the Sydney route from February 1, 2008 will be configured with 42 Executive First Suites and 228 seats in Economy Class. The airline also introduces its passengers to another of todays staples, although then mobile check in and electronic boarding passes on smartphones was quite a revolution. This is taken a stage further in 2009 when the airline introduces its app for mobile devices.
With the opening of a new pier (F) The airline also relocated all operations into Terminal 1 at Toronto Pearson Airport. At the time Montie Brewer, President and Chief Executive Officer of Air Canada said “The new pier at Pearson Airport means that for the first time in many years Air Canada is located under one roof at its main operating hub. This will dramatically improve the customer experience through greater convenience, vastly reduced distances between gates and far easier connections”
New services from Toronto to Beijing, Shanghai, Madrid, Sydney and Santiago, Chile and increased capacity to Frankfurt and London with the newly arrived Boeing 777 means that Toronto alone now has 706 daily flights to 165 destinations.
The airline maintained the previous years record of an 83.4% load factor across its mainline operations.
Over the coming years the airlines mainline and Jazz divisions continue to expand reporting record traffic results despite a short reduction to autumn and winter services in 2008 due to the record price of fuel. In 2009 there is a change at the helm with Calin Rovinescu becoming President and Chief Executive Officer.
Air Canada has for some years maintained its regional North American domestic and transborder operations under what are called Capacity Purchase Agreements (CPA). Air Canada purchases the operators seat capacity based on predetermined rates. In reality, this makes the operator a contract carrier for Air Canada operating flights on their behalf. The CPA provides commercial flexibility and connecting network traffic to Air Canada, while significantly reducing the smaller regional operators financial and business risks.
In 2011 Air Canada decided to rebrand the whole regional fleet under one name, Air Canada express. The rationale for this was to harmonise the service passengers received from the various partners that actually operate the services. The rebranding was part of a broader move by Air Canada to make it clearer to its customers just what to expect in terms of service and of aircraft size. It differentiates the mainline from the regional service and from the low cost arm, rouge.
This rebranding effectively put an end to the previous umbrella brand of Jazz, however Jazz Aviation based at Halifax Stanfield International Airport still operates a considerable proportion of the ‘express’ services utilising Bombardier Dash 8 and Q400 and CRJ705 alongside three other operators.
Sky Regional initially operated with Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 and Embraer E175 jets from its Toronto base, however by 2017 the Brazilian jet had become the sole aircraft type operated. 25 of these are now operated flying in excess of 100 flights per day.
Air Georgian also operating from Toronto with Bomdardier jets and Beech 1900 flies 62,000 flights per year carrying 1.5 million passengers a year to 31 regional domestic and transborder destinations.
Exploits Valley Air Services (EVAS) is based at Gander International Airport in Newfoundland, Canada operates several daily flights within Newfoundland and Labrador, and Quebec with the Beech 1900.
In 2012, Air Canada receives a 75th anniversary present by being voted Best International Airline in North America for the third year running in the Skytrax World Airline Awards survey of international air travellers. A year later Air Canada becomes the only international network carrier in North America to receive a Four-Star ranking from Skytrax. The airline and its employees get to see the Boeing 787 of which it has a number on order.
2013 saw a number of major changes to the airline as a whole. In July a new International Premium Economy cabin is unveiled, first introduced on the Montreal–Paris route, this offered customers a wide range of benefits including a dedicated cabin featuring larger, wider seats that provide more recline. It also announces the purchase and phase-in of 61 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. The new aircraft will eventually replace the entire Airbus fleet.
July also saw the introduction of a completely new arm.
Air Canada Rouge is what the parent company describes as a leisure airline and is fully integrated into the network although operating under its own AOC. It was initially aimed at the likes of Air Transat and WestJet serving the lucrative Canadian leisure and holiday travel market whilst operating at a lower cost base than the parent. Interestingly the name was chosen following a contest launched on Facebook inviting customers, employees and travel industry professionals for their input. Flights operate using either their own RV/ROU code or the main AC code on some mainline ‘operated by rouge’ services.
Air Canada sees rouge is an integral component of their international growth strategy. It is felt that its popularity with leisure travellers and the efficiencies of its business model enables Air Canada to effectively compete for vacation traffic and open new markets around the world.
Operations began with the fleet transferred from the parent airline as they received new B777-200LR’s, comprising of two Boeing 767-300ER aircraft on transatlantic flights in a two-cabin configuration offering a selection of what the airline called rouge PlusTM seats and Premium rougeTM seats featuring additional seating comfort, space and enhanced meal and beverage service. These aircraft did have 71 extra seats over the mainline fleet which resulted in a somewhat lesser seat pitch outside of the enhanced ‘Premium Rouge’ product
For North American flights there were two Airbus A319 aircraft in an all-economy configuration carrying an extra 16 more seats over the mainline carrier.
At a news conference introducing the new airline Ben Smith, Air Canada’s Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer said “With the introduction today of Air Canada rouge, Air Canada enters today’s growing leisure travel market on a truly competitive basis…..”
Michael Friisdahl, President and Chief Executive Officer of Air Canada’s Leisure Group, continued, “With leisure time at a premium, Air Canada rouge will combine affordable fares, great service and choice leisure destinations with those benefits offered by Air Canada and Air Canada Vacations that are valued most by vacation travellers.” Initial destinations were a mix of new (Venice and Edinburgh) and existing seasonal routes from Montreal and Toronto to Athens transferred from the parent, in addition to existing Air Canada flights operated in cooperation with Air Canada Vacations to Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Costa Rica
Air Canada rouge expanded to other popular holiday destinations as the parent airline took delivery of new Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft in 2014. This then freed up aircraft for redeployment into the Air Canada rouge fleet.
In just 18 months the fleet had reached 28 aircraft operating routes to mainly Europe, the USA and the Caribbean.
Air Canada rouge was an early carrier to enable passengers to use their own personal entertainment devices using a wireless streaming system called player the app for which needing to be downloaded before flight. It promotes itself as a part of the whole holiday experience, even sending its cabin crews to Walt Disneys Service Excellence Academy as well as what might be termed the more standard training conducted by Air Canada.
Although generally successful with high load factors the airline has had to manage customer expectations on some routes that have been transferred from the parent which in turn has removed traditional Fist and Business class offerings. In fact there has been the need to revert back to the parent due to passenger and even government opposition to the transfer.
May 18, 2014 sees Air Canada completing its first Boeing 787-8 Dreamliner flight with the arrival of AC7008 at Toronto’s Pearson Airport, carrying 100 employees on its maiden voyage. As the first Canadian airline to fly the new long-range, fuel-efficient plane, the Dreamliner plays a major role in its international expansion strategy, with orders for 37. The 787-9 arrives just over a year later on July 31, 2015
Air Canada is Canada's largest domestic and international airline serving more than 200 airports on six continents. In 2016 the countries flag carrier significantly increased its global reach with the launch of 28 new routes including 15 international and 12 U.S. trans-border routes, flying 45 million customers in the process A new service to Morocco enabled the airline to join the elite club of global carriers serving all six continents. Other routes were Toronto to Seoul, London Gatwick, Prague, Budapest, Warsaw and Glasgow, with Montreal to Casablanca and Lyon and Vancouver to Delhi, Brisbane, Warsaw and Dublin using a combination of the main carrier and the leisure arm Rouge to perform these flights.
The airline operates from four main hubs. Toronto Pearson in the south its primary global hub. Vancouver in the west, the airlines premier gateway to the Asia Pacific region. Montreal to the south the main gateway to French international markets. Finally Calgary in the west.
The airline as a whole currently operates a fleet of 300 mainline and regional aircraft which are currently being painted in a new black and white design whilst maintaining the iconic red maple leaf now returned to the tail in the encircled ensign or “rondelle” last seen 24 years ago.
"Air Canada's new livery signals a pivotal inflection point in our 80-year history," said Benjamin Smith, President, Passenger Airlines at an event in Toronto on February 9, 2017, where the airline's largest hub is located. Simultaneous events were also held Montreal and Vancouver. Smith goes on to say "On the occasion of Canada's 150th anniversary year, with our new livery, new uniforms for our employees, the award-winning international cabin standard introduced with the launch of our Boeing 787 aircraft, and enhanced onboard offerings, the future Air Canada represents the strength of our nation and the future-looking spirit of our airline.”
2017 has seen Air Canada and Air Canada Rouge continues its global strategic expansion launching new international services between Toronto and Mumbai, Berlin, Reykjavik (also from Montreal). Montreal to Shanghai, Algiers and Marseille with Vancouver seeing Taipei, Nagoya, Frankfurt, and London Gatwick.
Air Canada is also expecting to receive its first Boeing 737 MAX aircraft at the end of 2017, marking the start of its narrowbody fleet renewal program, which be complemented with the introduction in 2019 of its first Bombardier C Series aircraft.
The current fleet is quite a diverse mix across the various arms. The mainline fleet consists of a mix of Boeing, Airbus and Embraer examples. Boeings 777-200LR and 300ER, 787-8 and 9 and 767-300ER. Airbus adds the A330-300 to the long haul fleet with the A321, 320 and 319 serving its short to medium routes alongside the Embraer E190
Air Canada Rouge uses the B767-300ER on its long haul routes with the Airbus A319 and A321for shorter ones.
To date, Air Canada has taken delivery of 23 new Boeing 787 Dreamliners with 14 more planned by 2019 – all offering the new international cabin standard. In addition, the airline completed the reconfiguration of its entire Boeing 777 fleet of 25 aircraft with the state-of-the-art Dreamliner cabin configuration and inflight entertainment systems. It also expects to receive its first two 737 MAX before the end of the year.