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Michael Rousseau in 2004.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Michael Rousseau, 61, was tagged as the successor to chief executive officer Calin Rovinescu in 2019, when he was promoted to deputy CEO. Mr. Rousseau, an accountant, assumes the top job at Canada’s biggest airline as it slashes costs, lays off thousands, drops routes and abandons regional airports while bleeding about $16-million every day.

“It’s not the best time to take over the job,” said Jacques Roy, a professor of transportation at HEC Montreal.

Mr. Rousseau, who left Hudson’s Bay Co. as president in 2007 to become Air Canada’s chief financial officer, steered the airline’s efforts to amass a cash cushion as the pandemic halted most global airline traffic. Beginning in March, the airline tapped credit lines, lenders, and stock and bond markets to secure more than $9-billion in liquidity, including $6-billion in cash.

“Mr. Rousseau played a critical role in Air Canada’s transformation over the last several years,” said Walter Spracklin, a Royal Bank of Canada analyst.

Last week, Air Canada sold and leased back nine Boeing Max 8 aircraft, raising another $485-million as it tries to weather a collapse in demand for air travel expected to last another four to five years. “It’s a question of having enough cash to get through that period,” said Prof. Roy, who predicts demand could rebound to 75 per cent of prepandemic levels in as few as two years.

Mr. Rousseau, whom Air Canada declined to make available for an interview, has also worked at business forms printer Moore Corp. in Chicago, convenience-store operator Silcorp Ltd. and retailer UCS Group. He was born and raised in Cornwall, Ont., and studied at Toronto’s York University.

Mr. Rousseau takes a regular turn presenting Air Canada’s story at investor conferences throughout Canada and the United States, but has a low profile with the public. That is about to change, as he leads Canada’s flagship airline through the crisis and finds himself thrust to the forefront of a battered industry appealing for looser travel rules and government aid.

John Gradek, who teaches aviation leadership at McGill University, said Mr. Rousseau has deftly fostered relationships with the financial community and bolstered Air Canada’s balance sheet. “He really understands the business because he has spent a lot of time in the back office, doing all the things that he has to do to understand what’s going on at Air Canada,” Mr. Gradek said.

After raising enough cash to survive, Mr. Rousseau will sit atop a company heavily indebted. How Mr. Rousseau manages that, in addition to the airline’s relationships with customers, labour, global industry groups, competitors, partner airlines and especially government regulators, will define the next span of his career.

“He’s an Air Canada guy now but I think that the question’s going to be, how is he going to play in the political realm?” Mr. Gradek said. “The jury’s still out on how he can stand up to [Transport Minister Marc] Garneau and the rest of the team.”

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