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From washing planes to building one of Canada’s largest regional carriers

Jim Glass for Obit. Credit: Transwest Air

James Neil Glass knew what he wanted. He wanted to take over the family charter flight business. Then he wanted to introduce scheduled service. Finally and most daringly, he wanted to work together with his family's archrivals to form a large regional airline. Along the way, he wanted to help folks out in whatever way he could. He accomplished all those things long before a minor soccer injury delivered unexpectedly major consequences. He died July 10 at the age of 50.

Born on Oct. 5, 1961, in Prince Albert, Sask., Glass was the second of four children of Floyd and Mamie Glass. Floyd had founded a small charter airline, Athabaska Airways, six years earlier, and Glass grew up breathing the business. He helped wash the planes and pump gas, and relished fly-yourself family vacations to northern lakes or, in the winter, south to Texas. He flew planes before he could see over the dash, and also absorbed his adored father's business acumen and work ethic. By the time he graduated from high school in 1979, he had his private pilot's licence.

Glass next obtained a commercial pilot's licence, and a business diploma from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in Calgary, returning to Saskatchewan to manage Athabaska's charter base in Saskatoon. In 1987 he moved back to Prince Albert to assist his father in the head office. The company had grown substantially from the single Cessna of 1955, and Glass urged his father to introduce scheduled service. The older man preferred the charter business, but recognized that "if we don't do it, someone else will." Regular flights from Saskatoon and Prince Albert to small northern outposts began in 1989.

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As he took on more administrative responsibility, Glass had less time to fly. Though he missed it, he relished the challenges of running a business. As his brother Barry observed, he wasn't one to let unwanted chores derail him: "If he didn't like something he was doing, he stopped it and moved on." But he loved business.

Like his father, he had several ventures in addition to Athabaska Airways: He mingled in the Kindersley oil patch, sold aviation fuel in the north, leased airplanes and, for a time, was part owner of a textile concern in Saskatoon.

"He employed a lot of people, and quietly helped out a lot of others," said long-time friend Peter Surkan, estimating that about 240 families depended on him. "For a young fellow, that's quite remarkable."

Glass liked to help out. He was president of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce while still in his 30s, and was also active with the Air Transport Association of Canada, including as chair of the board.

Said Barry Glass, "He would see things that were maybe well-intended but didn't work in the real world. He always made the effort to try and make things better instead of just complaining about it."

One thing he wanted to make better was his company. Small firms like Athabaska are at the mercy of the turbulent aviation sector. He wanted to make the company bigger by merging with another small airline.

Air Sask/La Ronge Aviation Services was founded in La Ronge, Sask., in 1960 by Pat Campling. Like Athabaska Airways, it began as a charter service with a single Cessna, building gradually to a more diverse fleet, and had introduced scheduled service to northern locations in 1991. Air Sask and Athabaska competed intensely – "like the Hatfields and the McCoys," remembered Campling's son Pat Jr., who was poised to take over from his father.

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Co-operation would have been impossible under the founders, but in 2000, the year after his father's death, Glass approached the younger Campling and proposed a merger. "I was kind of shocked," said Campling; but after he'd taken some time to digest it, he agreed. They formed Transwest Air, turning two small, struggling airlines into one of the largest regional carriers in the country. Transwest now has a fleet of nearly 50 fixed-wing and rotary craft, and daily flights to four far northern communities in addition to Saskatoon, Prince Albert and La Ronge, along with charter and avionics services.

The young partners had little difficulty moving past their historic rivalry. In fact, they became good friends. Their employees – often long-time associates of the respective families – were another matter. An expected two-year transition took four, and in the end a few people had to be let go.

Sept. 11, 2001, hit the new company hard: Many people stopped flying, and expensive new security regulations came in. "We really took a bath there," recalled Campling. More hard times followed in the economic crisis of 2008; and internal issues also challenged them. "That's all being in business," Campling shrugged: "If you're in private business, you're going to have your ups and downs."

Ups and downs notwithstanding, Glass and Campling made sure they gave back. They devoted substantial amounts of money, equipment and time to youth programs throughout the province, and especially in the north.

Earlier this year, Glass began experiencing severe headaches. He went for test after test, but nothing showed up. Meanwhile, he continued doing all the things he loved. On July 5 he sustained a minor injury in a soccer game, and this evidently triggered the disaster-in-waiting. Five days later he was gone.

Transwest Air was structured to weather the tragedy: Information and responsibility were shared. On a personal level, however, his loss was keenly felt, both by his business partner and employees, by his five children, present and former life partners, and his mother and siblings.

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