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Air Canada President and CEO Calin Rovinescu attends the company's annual general meeting, in Montreal, on May 5, 2017.

Air Canada chief executive Calin Rovinescu will retire early next year after leading the country’s largest airline for almost 12 years, handing control to deputy CEO and chief financial officer Michael Rousseau.

Montreal-based Air Canada announced on Friday that Mr. Rovinescu, 65, plans to step down on Feb. 15 after putting the finishing touches on a pandemic recovery plan that has forced the airline to lay off half its work force of 38,000, lock in $6-billion of liquidity and rework the proposed acquisition of rival Transat A.T. Inc.

In coming months, the airline’s executives will continue to lobby governments for financial support and take steps to convince the public it is safe to get back on planes.

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“Calin has the ability to be both strategic and a great operator, and he’s created a deep team,” said Air Canada director Annette Verschuren, former president of Home Depot Canada. In an interview, she said: “What we’ve witnessed on his watch is an intense, 30-year undertaking to build this global business.” Ms. Verschuren said Air Canada’s board and executive team agreed to delay succession earlier this year, when the pandemic struck.

Air Canada’s next CEO, Mr. Rousseau, is 61 and joined the company in 2007 as chief financial officer, after serving as president of Hudson’s Bay Co. The airline named him deputy CEO in 2018.

Mr. Rovinescu departs amid the aviation industry’s worst crisis. As a second wave of the novel coronavirus sweeps Europe and parts of Canada, there are no signs governments are set to ease travel restrictions. And there are no signals travellers are willing to set aside fears of becoming ill by taking a plane to a resort, business meeting or family visit.

“If there’s any time that Air Canada needs strong leadership, it’s this one,” said John Gradek, who teaches aviation leadership at McGill University.

To aid battered industries, the federal government provided wage subsidies, loans to large employers and free rent at airports, but has yet to provide a bailout to the airline industry. In contrast, governments around the world have backstopped domestic carriers, aiding Air Canada’s global rivals. In negotiations with federal officials, Mr. Rovinescu failed to persuade Ottawa to provide financial help without strings – either increased environmental standards or state ownership, Mr. Gradek said.

Mr. Rovinescu criticized Canada’s COVID-19 measures as “blanket prohibitions” that were not grounded in science and slowed the economic recovery while costing thousands of jobs. After closing operations at eight regional airports and suspending 30 routes to smaller centres, Mr. Rovinescu warned more parts of the country were at risk of losing their air links.

This tough-minded approach applied to the airline’s own customers. Air Canada cancelled thousands of flights in the pandemic and refused to provide refunds, unless the ticket included cancellation insurance or the flight was in or out of a country whose laws required it. At the end of the second quarter, Air Canada had refunded $1-billion worth of airfares, but held $2.4-billion in advance ticket sales, including credits.

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As a lawyer, Mr. Rovinescu advised Air Canada for more than two decades, successfully fending off a hostile takeover offer from Onex Corp. in 1999. He first joined the airline from 2000 to 2004 as head of strategy, then chief restructuring officer. He left to work as an investment banker, and was recruited back to the top job five years later.

“Calin pulled Air Canada out of the recession of 2008 and rebuilt the organization piece by piece as an outstanding competitor on the global stage,” said Mirko Bibic, chief executive at BCE Inc. and Mr. Rovinescu’s former partner at law firm Stikeman Elliott LLP. In an e-mail, Mr. Bibic said: “His overall transformation of Air Canada is a legendary accomplishment, core course material for business schools of the future.”

Over the course of his tenure, Mr. Rovinescu struck long-term labour agreements with the airline’s unions, renewed its fleet with fuel-efficient aircraft and bought back the Aeroplan loyalty program. Air Canada’s stock price took wing, rising from 78 cents when he rejoined the airline to record highs of $52 in January before slumping this spring as the pandemic shut down flights.

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