What Happened To Canadian Airlines?

Did you know there was once an airline in Canada that was part of the OneWorld Alliance? In fact, the name of that airline was Canadian – and it was a founding member of the alliance. Yes, before WestJet was Air Canada’s major domestic rival there was Canadian Airlines. But what happened to them?

Canadian Airlines flew long-haul flights to Europe, Asia and more. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Where it all began

According to Wikipedia, Canadian Airlines was formed on March 27th, 1987, after a series of acquisitions and mergers of the following airlines:

  • Pacific Western
  • Canadian Pacific (CP Air)
  • Eastern Provincial Airways
  • Nordair

Two years later, in 1989, it went on to acquire Wardair. This gave the airline access to new routes including to the UK and Europe. Its major hubs were the three largest Canadian cities:

  • Toronto (YYZ)
  • Montreal (YUL)
  • Vancouver (YVR)

Canadian was also a founding member of the OneWorld airline alliance, along with airlines Qantas, American Airlines and British Airways.

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In the last few years of its service, Canadian Airlines expanded its international route network in Asia. The airline flew to destinations as far as:

  • China
  • Hong Kong
  • Japan
  • Malaysia
  • Philippines
  • Singapore
  • Taiwan
  • Thailand

At that time it gave Canadian Airlines the distinction of flying to more places in Asia, more often than any other Canadian carrier.

Financial difficulties and acquisition

Unfortunately, Canadian Airlines was hit hard by a slump in the airline industry in 1991. In addition to debt restructuring, the airline was further aided by an injection of cash from the American Airlines Group. Seven years later the airline was also feeling the effects of an Asian economic downturn in 1998 and saw its air traffic decrease, unfortunately mainly in the transpacific where it was focusing much of its energy.

It would also be reasonable to assume that the start and growth of WestJet also took away market share from the airline. WestJet started up in 1994.

After continued poor performance, Canadian Airlines was acquired by Air Canada in 2000. There were other proposals for the airline’s survival but they were all rejected. This even included a competing bid led by American Airlines to purchase Canadian. American Airlines had already maxed out its government-imposed limit of foreign ownership set at the time as 25%. That limit has since been increased.

When the merger took place, Canadian Airlines had over 40% of the domestic passenger market in Canada. 

Canadian Airlines had a fleet of 14 DC-10-30 aircraft.

The Canadian airspace now

Air Canada 787
Air Canada recently acquired Air Transat. Photo: Air Canada

The Canadian airspace now consists of two major players: Air Canada and WestJet. These two airlines have their own low-cost subsidiaries: Air Canada Rouge and Swoop. Now acquired by Air Canada, Air Transat has some great routes but remains largely a charter and leisure airline.

Earlier this year WestJet was acquired by major private investment firm Onex for US$3.7 billion.

United's CEO will fly on the Boeing 737 Max
WestJet was recently acquired by private investment firm Onex. Photo: Acefitt via Wikimedia Commons

Conclusion

The Canadian air travel industry will continue to evolve but it looks like Air Canada will retain its top spot for a while. Hopefully, WestJet (and their new owners/investors) will keep the sector competitive.

Did you ever get the chance to fly with Canadian Airlines? How did the service and product compare to other airlines at the same time? Let us know by leaving a comment!

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Pete Scott

WestJet’s conceptual birth was in mid June 1994, (as the ABC Air Group), but the first flights were not until Feb 29 1996, ie, about 20 months later.

Compare that to Canada Jetlines who conceptualized their idea in mid 2013, and after 72 months, were still waiting for something to happen.

James Gurney

Canadian Airlines was a horrible airline ! I recall a bunch of old airplanes, senior citizen flight attendants, and a hodge podge of service. Absolutely no consistency with their service. Air Canada had a very good mileage program. Canadian Airlines was the little airline that could NOT! No wonder it failed – it was a bloated entity, especially after it acquired Wardair .

Rosie's Boy

Dear James: It depends on when and how often you flew on Canadi>n, and on what routes. They did acquire new aircraft regularly. Canadian and CPAir had Canadian Plus loyalty program. As for “senior citizens”, that might be construed to be an ageist remark. If you like the live entertainment in the aisles to be young and plastic and glamorous, I think there are airlines out there that put their flight attendants out to pasture at 40. The important attributes in a “Cabat” is the ability to help passengers in an emergency, to be empathetic when problems arise, to be… Read more »

Niklas

Well wrote Rosie

Grettings from Sweden

Bob Blacker

I agree with you Rosie! I flew CP AIR before it became CANADIAN AIRLINES. Many of my flights were to the South Pacific. The one thing that I looked for when I was flying was the grey haired Capt. (which gave me confidence that they were well grounded pilots) and secondly mature Flight Attendants. I never in all the time that I flew with CP AIR and CANADIAN had any issues with elder FA’s. In fact all of them were excellent. I fly AIR CANADA today to the South Pacific and domestically and they have mature FA’s who do an… Read more »

Jack

Thank you
James must of been a one time flyer or had a trip on a combi to the artic.

Parker West

James seems to have an issue with 40+ year old FAs, or maybe his limit drops down to 35+ and he enjoys his favorite fantasy of a seedy sexual encounter with a “she wants me, bad” member of the cabin crew. Sorry chum flight attendants are onboard to save your ass not kiss it, and a 50 year old FA has far move experience on how to do just that. As an added bonus, most of the 40-50 year old ladies were hired when Weight and Appearance checks were mandatory, meaning their hair, nails, and make-up was impeccable as was… Read more »

Chris Best

https://warfleetpress2.wordpress.com/2014/07/28/joss-a-honking-good-time/

A book has been written about Canadian Airlines and is still available. It also tells the story of how a group of employees tried to save the airline as well as the real reason for its demise which had a lot to do with government and insider cronyism. Check out the link above and if you would like a copy send me an email [email protected] I am the publisher and editor of the book. Tks Christopher Best

Roberta F Simpson

Chris: I would love a copy of that book!
I miss Canadian Airlines so much! They were the Best Years of my life!
Regards!
Roberta F. Simpson
[email protected]

Eric V.

I never flew with them, but I remember as a young photographer taking a LOT of pictures of their planes, in particular one 747 that seemed to be parked at Toronto every time I visited. I miss them. I miss the DC-10. Always loved my tri-engines.

Silka Reinmann

They did not have the most modern aircraft . I recall being handed a DVD player when seated in business class, while other airlines had in seat video monitors. Their airplanes tended to be older . My company at the time used them for about a year – not impressed. Returned our contract to Air Canada.

Edward Lunberg

Yeah they were really out to try and take business away from Air Canada, but their product simply could not compete . If only they could have gotten their act together, but I think that the arrival of WestJet would have done them in anyway.
Canadian was saddled with too many rich union contracts, and were over staffed what with the merging of all those little regional airlines. The CEOs also made off line bandits.

Amir

Based out of Montreal, I flew Canadian Airlines very often for both domestic, trans-boarder and international segments. It was amazing experience till the time Air Canada took over and destroyed the wonderful Canadian Airlines. Yes there was an effort by Canadian Airlines FTE’s but the gov regulations took it down. Not to mention, Air Canada did the same to Canada 3000 (a lost cost airline of early 2000’s) as well.

I miss Canadian Airlines.

Matthew M

While Air Canada ‘Tango’ was a long expected predatory product and had their first flight 8 days after Canada 3000 ceased operations; Canada 3000 mostly did it to themselves. They were completely over-leveraged. Unable to access sufficient capital and a hot-mess of a fleet (one A340-200?) They weren’t filling seats before 11-Sep-2001, but they didn’t have a chance afterwards. They lasted barely 45 days.

If Canada 3000 survived 2001, it probably wouldn’t have lasted much longer as Air Canada launched their Rouge product, WestJet brought on longer-range equipment and Air Transat continued their profitable plodding in filling the charter/Sun/Europe space.

Tim

Air Canada is terrible, We booked a flight Victoria to Calgary and my wife was in a wheelchair, It turned out to be a Dash 8 aircraft. No help getting her in and in Calgary no help again. Everyone was gone, passengers, pilots and flight attendants. Just me and my wife trying to get her down a set of stairs? It was horrible. I will never fly Air Canada again. Both of these companies have moved over to the smaller,slower aircraft but the prices haven’t gone down? Baggage charges fuel charges, airport charges. I’ll drive thank you

Lori Kealey

I have given up on Air Canada. Will always try any other airline. Lack of concern or attention to their client base. Cancelled flights at last minute, no warnings.
Lori

Les Kronfsky

IF Canadian Airlines had it in it, it would have survived. It was just not well run. And the unions were so militant ! I recall they were on the financial brink and that Buzz Hargrove did not want to have his unions assist in its survival by lowering wages and benefits. Even if they had managed to get out of their financial hole, the arrival of WestJet out west would have done them in. A sad pathetic combination of regional airlines did not make for a national airline. Textbook business failure, 101

Gina Tartini

I was a flight attendant with Canadian Airlines starting in 1987. It was a wonderful company to work for. We we were unionized and and paid appropriated. Our meals were hot and delicious and our beverage service was also comparable. Didn’t have to pay for every alcoholic drink that you do now a days. Travelling Air Canada or West Jet there is no food and every alcoholic drink is paid for. I was 28 years old and most of my colleagues were in their earlier 20’s. So to say that the crew staff was a bunch of senior citizens is… Read more »

Wendy

Hi Gina: I completely agree with you on all counts !! I worked for Canadian in 1987 and the service then as compared to now is no comparison.. airlines in this country now are not what they were then . .. the service was amazing back then as you said full meal service .. the people travelling now as well have changed .. travel was a privilege back then .. passengers were more behaved so to speak back then as well .. Don’t get me wrong I’ll gladly help anyone in need but I just find people demand more now… Read more »

GinaTartini

I was a flight attendant with Canadian Airlines starting in 1987. It was a wonderful company to work for. We were unionized and paid appropriately. We served hot meals and are beverage service was comparable. I was 29 years old when I started and most of my colleagues were in their 20’s so to the moron who said that the flight crew looked like they were senior citizens better have had their eyesight tested. I guess people like a pack of peanuts or pretzels and to pay for every alcoholic beverage nowadays. We had a great comradeship amongst all our… Read more »

skip

I remember Canadian airlines very fondly …the flight attendants were awesome …they were always smiling and very obliging … The food was always good ….I never had a bad experience with Canadian . When Canadian merged with Air Canada some of the flight attendants went as well …they always made a point of saying hello to their former Canadian passengers .

Gia Ionnozi

Anybody who thinks that if Canadian Airlines somehow survived to this day and would be offering full service like they did in the 80s and 90s are folks who are living in LaLa land…perhaps another reason they failed financially….they could not control their costs… different world today…WestJet would have been the death of them even if their bosses had gotten smart and did the cost cutting before it was too late.

David

If Pacific Western had got its act together and realized what an opportunity they had – a Calgary based 737 operator, sound familiar? – then there would never have been a Westjet.
Likewise if CAIL (or whatever it was by that stage) had realized what a gem it had in Wardair, then there could have been a whole different outcome to the Canadian story. PW doing the domestic thing, Canadian on the Pacific and WD on the Atlantic. Oh the joys of 20/20 vision!

JOAN REYNOLDS

I was a frequent international traveller with Canadian Airlines (long haul, short hall economy and business class) – and worked in the Customs/baggage area as well, so I have seen both sides of their operation. Compared to most other airlines (including Air Canada) CPA was by far the best in punctuality, ground crew support, baggage delivery and handling, and for passengers, far better food, cabin service and airport lounges. (Mind you I was one of the few that found Wardair really poor – but one cant compare as they were essentially a vacation airline – a few key destinations, not… Read more »

Matthew M

The article misses the true story of Canadian Airlines and merely parlays the Wikipedia story. Canadian Airlines was a world-class combination of CP and Pacific Western. Nordair, (Wardair and others were minor appendages.) CP had a proud international reputation dominated by its Pacific orientation and a orange livery. Pacific Western served mostly a Canadian domestic market that was oriented around Western Canada. Canadian held many valuable route authorities (i.e. Hong Kong) but was generally considered the #2 airline in Canada though it wasn’t much smaller than Air Canada at the time. Like many airlines in the mid’90s, it was highly… Read more »

Gilles L

The government forced poor Air Canada to take on debt ridden , militant unionized Canadian Airlines. It was all politics. If it was so good, why did it not survive ? It was the egos of a bunch of bone headed Canadian Airline executives who thought they could be a big player at a time when the economy could not support this pipe dream. And the staff were so old that most have retired . It has been 20 years…

Kevin Sjoatad

Canadian Airlines was a mess ! Poor service, rude staff… that is what happens when you merge a group of small podunk Airlines together…and don t even get me started on those creaky old airplanes they would use! Truly a sorry excuse for an airline. The top bosses made their money, though….

Robert

It would appear there are various opinions on why Canadian Airlines no longer exists. I am sure there were good flights and bad flights just as today. We tend to look back with rose coloured glasses. You can not compare the service or lack of service on today’s flights with those of the past. The acquisition of Wardair was not a wise decision, perhaps if it had been ran as a separate entity the outcome may have been different. You can not blame Air Canada, who was coerced into merging with a bankrupt company for political reasons, I am sure… Read more »

Bo Erlandson

Canadian Airlines was just poorly run. Kevin Jenkins kept saying it would be profitable ‘next year’, which of course it never was…. older aircraft did not help. The American Airlines cash infusion was for Canadian to use their overpriced computer system. And the overpayment for that charter airline Wardair was the nail in the coffin for Canadian. None of the big bosses could make any hard decisions, except to pay themselves quite well. Remember Rys Eaton getting that huge bonus for ‘sealing the deal’ with American…? $$$.

Kjelll S

Bad bad airline. Business study for how NOT to run an airline.

Robin Prior

I live in San Francisco, and I would go visit friends in Europe and family in the UK, and during the time that Canadian existed, I flew many time back and forth. I remember good food, good service and free drinks. I also remember my round trip air-fare was about $400 for many years. in February 1988 I remember flying SFO to Amsterdam via Calgary – they were serving the Winter Olympics athletes who were returning home after their events. One thing really stood out for me and my traveling companion – all these beautiful/handsome young athletes smoking cigarettes and… Read more »