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Observation Deck

Changing Fleet Loyalties

A review of Air Canada's aircraft acquisitions

Air Canada’s recent decision to join the customer base for the world’s best-selling airliner to date (the Boeing 737) probably came as a surprise to many. Having eschewed joining this popularity contest from the type’s inception in the late 1960s until now, almost 50 years, this is indeed a major change. For that matter, there were many who considered today’s AC primarily an Airbus customer, given its extensive use of all the major types (A319/A320/321, the A330 and A340) produced by the European manufacturer after the A300/A310, excepting the A380 thus far.

Some carriers have had long allegiances to a particular manufacturer. Two examples involving Douglas Aircraft were Delta and KLM. The latter has the distinction of operating all of the manufacturer’s commercial types from the DC-2 (the DC-1 was a single-aircraft prototype) to the MD-11, and indeed, was the sole airline customer for the DC-5. Others, of course, have “spread the business around”, for a variety of reasons, including promoting competition between manufacturers and acquiring aircraft with characteristics not provided by the ‘favored’ manufacturer, such as the747 in the case of KLM.

Air Canada’s fleet structure over the years has reflected both philosophies. Going back to the early post-World War II period, Trans-Canada Airlines, like many -- if not most -- airlines of the time made significant use of the DC-3. While it also operated a variant of the DC-4, the Canadair North Star, this version was unique, for two reasons. First, it was pressurized, and second, the engines were Rolls-Royce Merlins, the same powerplants utilized by the British Spirtfire fighter aircraft of World War II fame. Furthering the British connection, for a time TCA also had a fleet of Bristol 170 freighters.

TCA’s major acquisition of new types in the early to mid-1950s came in two flavors. The Vickers Viscount, the first widely-used turboprop airliner, not only had British engines, but was built by a UK manufacturer. TCA was the first North American operator. For its longer-haul services, the airline chose the Lockheed L-1049 “Super” Constellation; earlier in TCA’s career it had operated the twin (piston) engine L-14 Electra.

As the 1950s progressed, and the jet age arrived for the world’s airlines, TCA made two other fleet acquisitions. The Constellations were replaced by the Douglas DC-8, albeit the dash-40 model, powered by Rolls-Royce Conway engines. This particular model was also selected by competitor Canadian Pacific Airlines, and Italy’s Alitalia. Later model DC-8s, by then with Pratt & Whitney turbofans, would keep the type active in Air Canada’s fleet for many years. The North Stars also needed to be replaced, and the Viscount’s successor, the Vickers Vanguard, was selected, obviating a continuation of the Lockheed trend, since the Vanguard and the turboprop L-188 Electra were competitors.

While the Viscounts had a long service life (up until the mid-1970s) at what was now Air Canada, their eventual replacement was the Douglas DC-9, which itself had a long career at the Canadian flag carrier. Boeing got its nose “under the tent” so to speak via the 747 as of the early 1970s. For smaller widebody duties the Lockheed L-1011 TriStar was selected in lieu of the competing DC-10. By the mid-1970s, the Boeing 727 was added to the fleet; a relatively late first use of the type by a major airline. Other Boeing types that entered the fleet in more recent years were the 767 and 777. In reality, and in consideration of its order for the 787, Air Canada will have missed only the 757 of the post-707 Boeing products now that the 737 is on the way.

In the late 1980s, a significant shift occurred when Air Canada ordered a fleet of Airbus A320s. As noted earlier, this initial beachhead turned into a major presence at the airline, in both the domestic/U.S. trans-border and international markets. Finally, in the 1990s and beyond, AC was a relatively early participant in what became known as the “RJ Revolution”, via the Canadair Regional Jet; it was also one of the few mainline carriers to operate the 50-seat type in its own fleet, as opposed to using a regional airline partner, although that operating model was adopted more recently.

And finally, proving that Air Canada is not Xenophobic, “E-Jet” aircraft from Brazil’s Embraer, in the form of the E-175 and E-190 have been added to the carrier’s fleet, notwithstanding their competition with Canadian producer Bombardier’s similarly-sized aircraft. Air Canada’s aircraft acquisition strategies display evidence of loyalty/relationship considerations and variety…at least thus far. It will be interesting to see what the future holds!

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