Wings of Innovation

  • With a growing fleet of Boeing airplanes, Air Canada continues to be an aviation pioneer

    From a Boeing Stearman mail plane to the 787 Dreamliner, Boeing and Air Canada have a long history.

    September 20, 2012
    By Kathrine Beck
    When two passengers boarded a Lockheed 10A Electra loaded with mail in Vancuver, British Columbia, on Sept.1, 1937, they probably didn't know they were stepping into history.

    The 50-minute flight to Boeing Field in Seattle would launch what was to become Canada's national airline and one of the leading innovators of modern commercial aviation.

    Two years later, the airline would pioneer onbaord oxygen systems and introduce the first-ever de-icing systems.  Later innovations would include the first computerized reservation system, the first jet-powered freighters, the so-called "black box" that would help unravel causes of accidents, the first nonsmoking flights and even the first electronic boarding pass.

    "We have to continue to build on our innovaiton agenda," Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu said recently . “This means having the  courage to effect transformation and  be early adopters.”

    Boeing and Air Canada have a long history. The airline started with a Boeing Stearman mail airplane and the Lockheed 10A Electra. Additionally, Philip Johnson, who left Boeing in 1933, was appointed vice president of operations for TransCanada Air Lines in 1937 and guided establishment of what would become Air Canada.

    In 1939, Johnson resumed his former position of Boeing president. Many of the airline’s early technical people came from Boeing.

    Today, 75 years after that first flight from Vancouver to Seattle, Air Canada has built a fleet of more than 200 airplanes including 30 Boeing 767-300s, six 777-200LRs and 12 777-300ERs. The airline also has five more 777-300ERs on order.

    That transformation is continuing with the addition of the 787 Dreamliner. The airline has 37 firm orders for the 787 and options for 13 more. First delivery is scheduled for 2014.

    “We are big believers that the 787 will dramatically improve our capabilities,” Rovinescu told an audience that gathered
    to begin a 75th anniversary celebration in Toronto last March, which included a special appearance of the 787 on its
    Dream Tour.

    “Having a 30 percent improvement in fuel efficiency is extremely exciting for us,” he said then.

    The 787 Dream Tour airplane shared the spotlight with a Lockheed 10A Electra all-metal monoplane—the airplane model
    that started it all for Air Canada. And the symbolism was not lost.

    “Today is a double celebration for Air Canada as we welcome the future, embodied by the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, and take stock of our accomplishments over our 75-year history,” Rovinescu told the crowd.

    Rovinescu said he is most proud of Air Canada’s “innovation and courage to try different things on for size …” Air Canada was the first North American operator to offer lie-flat beds in business class on international routes, he noted.

    In 2012, Air Canada was ranked Best International Airline in North America in a worldwide survey of more than 18 million airline passengers conducted by independent research firm Skytrax. When Air Canada won the award for the third year in a row, Skytrax itself called the feat “remarkable.”

    Privatized in 1989, Canada’s flag carrier is now the 15th-largest commercial airline in the world and in 2011 served more than 33 million customers. Its fleet flies to more than 180 destinations on five continents.The airline also is a founding member of Star Alliance, whose member airlines serve more than 1,200 destinations in nearly 200 countries.

    But Air Canada is more than a national airline in Rovinescu’s view. Greater than a third of its business is trans-border traffic from the United States. With hubs in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal, that is part of what he calls “our global powerhouse strategy to attract traffic through hubs that connect to places where passengers otherwise can’t fly direct.”

    The 787 clearly fits that strategy.

    “We can start flying to new destinations where we haven’t been able to fly before,” Rovinescu said. “We’re looking at destinations in India and many other markets that aren’t currently served because we can’t make the business case.”