Columns

Once upon a treasured airline

Dalton Camp September 6 1999
Columns

Once upon a treasured airline

Dalton Camp September 6 1999

Once upon a treasured airline

Columns

Dalton Camp

Canada is not working.

Eaton's, MacBlo, Air Canada, the Trans-Canada Highway, the CBC, the family farm, hockey—enough already, but

I could go on. We have entered a new age of malfunction, dysfunction, and closed-for-alterations. The Expos are headed south. CN is already there.

A strong case can be made for the claim the only things working in Canada are the Canadian Football League and the Canadian Senate. Its that bad, but it is all the good news we have for you today.

I suppose all those MBA towel-snappers hanging around the downtown handball courts think things have never been better, that the universe keeps unfolding the way the last board meeting planned it. A few million other Canadians, myself included, are not so sure.

We aren’t all that upset about Eaton’s becoming insolvent. I was an early member of the exclusive Eaton’s Homelovers Club, which I joined in 1948, and bought my first bed. The acquisition was years before the proliferation of plastic. The Homelovers Club was Eaton’s way of making you feel comfortable while they rummaged through your personal financial life so that you could finance the cost of the bed over an 18-month period. I was never sentimental about my relationship with the store, although a friend of mine credits Eaton’s catalogue with providing him with his first insight into what women might look like in their underwear.

While realizing change is inevitable, and not always for the better, I am less sanguine about Air Canada, formerly TransCanada Air Lines, once a wholly owned national treasure, and a property of the people of Canada. By the time you read this, Air Canada may be owned by a Bay Street financier, or by the Germans, or have become a feeder line for Air Ethiopia. The reason they are selling Air Canada to strangers is because they need to unload Canadian Airlines: anyone out there who can figure that out, in 25,000 words or less by next Friday, will receive 1,000 bonus frequent-flyer points from my personal hoard.

The Bay Street financier referred to above is Gerry Schwartz, chairman of Onex Corp., the Air Canada suitor of record. Mr. Schwartz is presently involved with in-flight food catering—which should give us all pause for thought— but also with eminent frequent flyers, such as the Prime Minister, his finance minister, Paul Martin (in case you forgot), not to mention the transport minister, David Collenette.

According to Heather Reisman, who is married to Mr. Schwartz, her husband is “a proudly Liberal” supporter, once the party’s chief bagman, who continues to be a party fund-raiser. “But his work in that regard is separate,” she told Southam News.

But the Prime Minister, speaking to Canadian Press that same day, said, for the record, about Mr. Schwartz, “No, he is not a fund-raiser. He used to be, but not anymore.”

I don’t know Gerry Schwartz; if he was a member of the Homelovers Club, he wasn’t around when I was there. It is impressive, however, how well known he is to the Prime Minister of Canada. Who turfed him from the list of fund-raisers? Who told Mr. Chrétien: “Boss, he’s history?” Anyway, it is clear no one told Ms. Reisman, which is OK, but my suspicion is that no one told Mr. Schwartz either: not the first man to learn of his altered state through the morning papers.

Merging Air Canada and Canadian Airlines into one privatized profit centre is going to be hard—on us. What was once our airline will now become someone’s private flying fiefdom. In the familiar jargon of the new economics and market imperatives, at least 5,000 employees will be “downsized.” Experts say fares will increase—how else to pay for the acquisition? Some routes will be cancelled—probably the ones you fly (but not Montreal-Toronto-Vancouver).

Do not look for better meals, improved service, or more comfortable seating. Do not look for anyone; the man patrolling the aisles is not your steward but an enforcer with government connections. The nation will be divided by three: those who fly, those who lack the money, and those who lack the endurance.

When the privatization mania struck Ottawa, I listened to its advocates for weeks. It was another wrinkle in a borrowed American conservative ethos—government is evil, and all that is not, works.

The privatization of Air Canada was a promise unkept based upon a premise that was unsound. A friend in the public service once invited me to meet Air Canadas then-president, Claude Taylor. We talked about the impact of privatization on regional services: he was optimistic; I was not. He was convinced he was right; I wonder what he thinks today.

As a general rule, at least thus far, privatization in the transportation business has been something between bonanza and boondoggle for investors but mostly a bummer for the people. Among other things not working, which I forgot to mention, are the armed forces and the House of Commons. Perhaps they should also be privatized so they would operate more like the air-travel business.

Allan Fotheringham is on vacation. Dalton Camp is a columnist and commentator who lives in New Brunswick.