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Air Canada executive vice-president Duncan Dee

Air Canada executive vice-president Duncan Dee is leaving the airline this fall as the company gears up to launch a low-cost division.

Mr. Dee first joined the country's largest airline in 1997, but left in late 2008 after a rift with then chief executive officer Montie Brewer. Mr. Dee rejoined Air Canada in April, 2009, after investment banker Calin Rovinescu replaced Mr. Brewer as CEO.

Air Canada has been seeking to boost revenue and cut costs, and the pending departure of Mr. Dee, 42, adds to the uncertainty at the carrier, which has faced a series of labour disputes over the past year. Union leaders are opposed to management's plans to start a discount leisure unit with employees who are paid lower wages than existing staff.

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The Montreal-based carrier described Mr. Dee as "taking early retirement this fall following a 15-year career with the airline."

Fred Lazar, a professor at York University's Schulich School of Business, noted Mr. Dee oversees the airline's government relations, as well as holding key roles in airport and in-flight operations. "He leaves an unexpected gap," Mr. Lazar said. "It must be tiring after a tough slog at Air Canada, devoting yourself to trying to turn around the company and it still isn't out of the woods. He's still a relatively young man."

Mr. Dee said in a statement Wednesday released by Air Canada that he has been honoured to work at the carrier, including the past three years as chief operating officer. "I know that these achievements will help transform Air Canada into a stronger, more sustainable airline in the years to come," he said.

Mr. Rovinescu praised Mr. Dee, saying he played a crucial part in making efficient use of planes and overcame obstacles as COO. "Duncan has held many different roles at Air Canada over his career, but in his role as chief operating officer, he has helped both shape our strategic direction and lead the airline through the challenges of transformation," Mr. Rovinescu said.

Mr. Dee is a former political aide who switched careers and rose through the ranks to become one of Air Canada's top five executives. He was once a legislative aide to former federal Liberal cabinet minister Sheila Copps and he has previously worked closely with aviation veteran Robert Milton, a former Air Canada CEO.

Meanwhile, Air Canada reported Wednesday that its May load factor, or the proportion of seats filled by paying customers, slipped to 81.6 per cent, compared with 82.2 per cent in the same month of 2011.

Industry observers say the airline must continue to strive to restore consumer confidence after job action by employees disrupted flights in March and April.

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