Skip to main content

Claude Taylor is said to have spent much of his spare time in his youth hanging around air strips, watching the planes land and take off.

Claude Taylor was a farm boy from New Brunswick who worked his way up from a night reservations clerk at Trans-Canada Air Lines in Moncton to president, chief executive and chairman of Air Canada. Under his watch, Air Canada came out from under the umbrella of Canadian National Railways to operate as a Crown corporation on its own. But Mr. Taylor, who died late last month, eventually admitted the airline had not been ready when it became fully privatized in the late 1980s.

For more than decade, Mr. Taylor pushed for the privatization of the airline, but politicians preferred to use Air Canada as a tool of social policy, making sure every city big and small had air service. In the early 1980s, both the Liberals and NDP were against selling it and in the 1984 election, Brian Mulroney said the state airline would stay in government hands. Among other things, there were worries in Quebec about job losses at Air Canada's head office in Montreal.

In 1986, Mr. Taylor had brochures and an ad campaign ready to promote the sale of shares to the public. But a nervous Mulroney government changed its mind and postponed the partial privatization until after the 1988 election. By this time Mr. Taylor was chairman and another man was president and CEO. Political appointees were removed from the board of directors and replaced by private-sector heavyweights such as Raymond Cyr of BCE and Rowland Frazee of the Royal Bank.

They supported Mr. Taylor and fired his rival, Pierre Jeanniot, who wanted a slower move to the efficiencies of cancelling money-losing routes and firing staff, especially at the bloated head office. Air Canada had 23,000 employees and one in six of them was a manager. A couple of years after privatization, though, Mr. Taylor told The Globe and Mail's John Stackhouse that the airline had been woefully unprepared to enter the real world.

"We were not as ready for privatization as we thought we were," said Mr. Taylor in 1991, the year Air Canada lost $40-million and had to fire thousands of workers. "I feel a very great weight of responsibility, almost a guilt feeling about what I'm doing to people."

Claude Taylor was born May 20, 1925, in Salisbury, N.B., son of Essie (née Troop) and Martin Luther Taylor, a dairy farmer who had four children by an earlier marriage. His father died when Claude was 10. During the Depression, Claude helped his family by milking cows, raising silver foxes and selling eggs.

After high school, one of his first jobs was hauling buckets of water for 25 cents an hour to a construction crew building a wartime airstrip near Moncton. At night, he learned typing and bookkeeping at Robinson Business College; he is far and away its most successful graduate. He spent most of his spare time around air strips, watching the planes land and take off. The postwar world was opening up and his accounting job in Moncton wasn't young Claude Taylor's idea of glory. He applied for and got a job as a night reservations agent at TCA. He took a pay cut and started at $65 a month.

At the time, Trans-Canada Air Lines, which was then just 10 years old, was flying small aircraft on domestic runs, planes such as the Lockheed Lodestar and DC-3. Mr. Taylor would have booked transatlantic flights on the Avro Lancastrian, developed from the Lancaster Bomber. It was soon replaced by purpose-built passenger aircraft such as the North Star, a variant of the Douglas DC-4 built under licence by Canadair in Montreal.

A year after joining the airline, Mr. Taylor transferred to Montreal. He tried to make up for his lack of a college degree by studying accounting at night at McGill University. He rose through the ranks and was soon an aide to the airline's tough president, Gordon McGregor, a parsimonious Scot and former RAF pilot, who ruled the airline with an iron fist and treated his staff like an air force squadron.

"We had manuals for everything," Mr. Taylor once told a Globe reporter. He was a rising young executive in the mid 1960s, about the same time as a young politician named Jean Chrétien changed the name of the airline from TCA to the more linguistically neutral Air Canada, which it had always been in French.

Mr. Taylor did not take on the trappings of a successful executive. He never played golf and he spent many of his off hours as a deacon at the Baptist church he founded near his home in the inner suburb of Cartierville along the "back river" at the north of the island. He and his family lived in a modest seven-room house, where he tended to his roses. A chauffeur drove him to work in a company limousine, but his own car was usually a Buick.

Mr. Taylor was vice-president for public affairs in the early 1970s, when a federal inquiry looked into Air Canada's chaotic financial structure. He was among those who emerged untarnished, and his star rose from that point on. He took the airline to relatively exotic foreign destinations, places of Cold War intrigue such as Moscow, Prague and Vienna.

He was named president in 1976, after Yves Pratte resigned as head of the airline. (Mr. Pratte later became a Supreme Court of Canada justice.) At the time, the airline was in fact, if not in name, a government department run by the minister of transport, whose functionaries micro-managed domestic airfares and routes.

There was no incentive to make money. As The Globe's John Stackhouse put it: "Knowing Ottawa would only take away its profits, Air Canada did its best not to make any." The main job was expanding and fighting low-cost competitors.

"Claude took over the reins of Air Canada in the mid-70s, when the industry was going through the dramatic shift from glamorous transportation to the era of mass air travel dominated by wide-body aircraft," said John Dawe, who was a marketing manager of British Airways in Montreal at the time. "Air travel had reached the mass market thanks to the efforts of Freddie Laker and his Laker Airways who, as charter airlines, pressured the so-called scheduled carriers to cut fares."

Mr. Taylor fought to distance the airline from the federal politicians and bureaucrats. But in 1984 the Liberals took away much of his power. Just before the federal election, they ignored the unilingual Claude Taylor's protests and gave the president and CEO titles to a bilingual francophone, Pierre Jeanniot, who was then executive vice-president and chief operating officer. "I just wasn't ready to give it up," said Mr. Taylor to a Globe reporter a decade later. "We had a lot of things to do and maybe I thought I could do them better."

He was almost killed in one morning in December, 1984, when he stepped off a sidewalk into the path of a car and was sent hurtling through the windshield. When he reached the hospital, he was in a coma and doctors wondered if he would ever come out. Four months later, he was back at work with two canes and a neck brace.

After winning the boardroom battle in 1988, Claude Taylor was in control of Air Canada for several more years. He was back as chairman, president and CEO from 1990 to 1992 when he retired. He was chairman emeritus of the airline from 1993 until his death. In spite of having to lay off so many people, he always remained devoted to the airline and its staff.

"Claude Taylor lived and breathed Air Canada. He was immensely proud of the Air Canada family and the accomplishments of its people," wrote his family in his death notice. "Whether on an aircraft, or walking through an airport, maintenance base or a department at HQ, he spoke with – and more important – listened to, all, asking personally for people's input and taking their advice to heart. Christmas Day would not start at home until after he called Air Canada staff working on Christmas morning at the airport and elsewhere, to wish them and their families a Merry Christmas."

A devoted family man, he would cut short overseas business trips to make it back to Montreal for events such as school concerts. He was equally involved in the lives of his grandchildren.

An officer of the Order of Canada since 1986, Mr. Taylor was a president of the International Air Transport Association, IATA, and many other aviation-related organizations. He was on the board of two Montreal-area hospitals and honorary president of Boy Scouts of Canada. He was a member of the Aviation Hall of Fame and the Business Hall of Fame.

Claude Taylor died on April 23, 2015, a month before his 90th birthday. His wife, Frances (née Watters), died in 2013. He leaves his brother, Fred; children, Peter and Karen; six grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Report an error

Editorial code of conduct