Air Canada

Major airline company of Canada.

Government Air Service

Canadian air history began in 1909, when John McCurdy piloted his famous “Silver Dart” on its first flight. After World War I, small so-called bush airlines introduced commercial air flight into the country, and some of these evolved into the modern Canadian lines. James A. Richardson, a Winnipeg businessman, started Western Canadian Airlines, which later became Canadian Pacific Airlines and then Canadian Airlines International. The Canadian parliament passed the Trans-Canada Airline Act on April 10, 1937, creating Trans-Canada Air, which began with a new Lockheed 10A Electra, two used Electras, and a Stearman Model 4. The new company hired the bush pilots, who had to learn instrument flying on the Electras. At first, Trans-Canada Air served as an airmail carrier flying from Vancouver to Seattle, and only began regular commercial passenger service in 1939. The line accepted applications for stewardesses. A thousand applied; twelve were hired.

The postwar period represented an era of continued growth and expansion. The carrier transported more than 180,000 passengers in 1945 and employed more than 32,000 people, compared to 21,000 passengers and less than 500 employees in 1939. In 1945, the airline bought its first Douglas DC-3, which flew until 1983.

Trans-Canada enjoyed a government monopoly on all domestic Canadian air routes from 1937 to 1959, but then the government granted other Canadian companies the right to compete. Many remote northern areas of Canada were accessible only by air, and the country required a broad range of air services that could be met by smaller and intermediate-sized lines in addition to Trans-Canada. Canadian Airlines and Canadian Pacific Airlines (CPA) emerged as major rivals. Four other important regional airlines and hundreds of smaller companies competed as well. On January 1, 1965, Trans-Canada Air changed its name to Air Canada.

Throughout the post-World War II years, the line endured numerous labor and financial problems. Furthermore, it had a difficult time trying to expand into the U.S. market and complained that American government officials favored American companies. In response, Air Canada sought partners in other countries. In 1966, the company signed a key agreement with the Soviet airline Aeroflot, becoming the first North American airline to do so, and setting up routes for both carriers from Moscow to Canada.

Air Disasters

The worst disaster of Trans-Canada Air occurred on November 29, 1963, at St. Thérèse de Blainville, north of Montreal, when Flight 831, a DC-8F, went down, killing all 111 passengers and 7 crew on board. This was the third fatal crash on the line’s passenger flights. The first occurred at Armstrong, Ontario, in February, 1941, when a Lockheed 14 crashed, killing twelve (nine passengers and three crew). In 1947, a Lockheed 18 went down near Vancouver, killing twelve passengers and three crew, and in 1954, at Moosejaw, Saskatchewan, a training plane crashed into a Trans-Canada North Star DC-4M, killing thirty-one passengers and four crew, as well as the pilot of the trainer and a woman on the ground. In June, 1983, a fire in the washroom of Air Canada Flight 797, a DC-9, forced the plane to land at Cincinnati Airport in Covington/Hebron, Kentucky. Eighteen passengers and five crew escaped but twenty-three passengers died in the fire.


In 1989, the Canadian government privatized Air Canada, but problems from competitors continued. The airline replaced its Boeing 727’s with Airbus A300’s and Boeing 767’s. In 2000, Air Canada and Canadian Airlines International, which had replaced CPA after the latter ceased operation in 1989, merged after complex negotiations. The merger, however, did not bring all the hoped-for benefits. Air Canada still suffered stiff competition from airlines with low fares and better service. By 2001, Canada 3000 Airlines and Westjet Airlines joined Air Canada as the three largest airlines in Canada. (Canada 3000 would file for bankruptcy by the end of the year, however.) While the national line suffered heavy losses, which they blamed on business layoffs in an economic slump, Westjet Airlines showed a profit. Air Canada bought out and closed another new airline, Roots Air, which also threatened competition. In July, 2001, the airline was fined by the Ontario Securities Commission for stock irregularities by giving information to market analysts in advance of public release.

In 1997, Air Canada, along with United Air Lines, Lufthansa, Thai Airways International, and Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS) had formed the Star Alliance, the foremost international air alliance group joined subsequently by other airlines. By 2001, Air Canada was the seventh largest airline in North America and the twelfth largest in the world. It carried thirty million passengers annually and employed forty-five thousand people. Through its own lines and connecting flights it reached more than ninety airports in Canada and the United States, in total serving 188 destinations directly on five continents. Its major hubs were located in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver, and had a fleet of 375 planes.


  • National Transportation Safety Board. Aircraft Accident Report: Air Canada Flight 797. Washington, D.C.: Author, 1986. A technical report on the fire aboard Flight 797 in 1983.
  • Noble, Kimberly, et al. “Air Gerry.” Maclean’s 112, no. 36 (September 6, 1999): 42-45. An article describing the attempt of Toronto financier Gerry Schwartz to take over Air Canada.
  • Smith, Philip. It Seems Like Only Yesterday: Air Canada, the First Fifty Years. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986. A history of the airline written for the general public.

Air carriers

Airline industry, U.S.


Safety issues