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Gordon McGregor page 4

Story by Ross smyth

As head of a government-owned corporation, McGregor stayed politically neutral, even when the airline’s purchase of the Montreal-built North Star aircraft became a controversy in the 1949 election and elevated TCA to the rank of a major Canadian institution. Even the nonpurchase of aircraft acquired political overtones after Canada became an early if unsuccessful entrant into the jet age. In 1949, Avro Canada flew the prototype C-102 Jetliner only two weeks after the initial flight of Britain’s de Havilland Comet, the world’s first jet airliner. Years later, some people unfairly accused McGregor of killing this pioneering effort by failing to order the aircraft. The Jetliner’s airframe called originally for two powerful engines, but the United Kingdom classified them as military. Avro then amended the design for four lower-thrust engines, and the airplane could no longer fly Toronto-Winnipeg nonstop, the heart of TCA’s transcontinental route.

McGregor firmly repulsed any efforts of politicians to meddle with schedules or place friends on the payroll. He set the pattern. Never did government directly interfere with the airline’s purchasing policy, thus permitting TCA to become a world leader in operational efficiency.

Only once did a rift almost occur in McGregor’s personal relationship with the powerful Cabinet minister responsible for the airline, the Rt. Hon. C.D. Howe. McGregor wanted a 15% transportation tax abolished to allow a painless increase in fares and instructed managers across the country to inform the local press if the federal budget eliminated it. Very early next morning McGregor received Howe’s bull-like roar on the telephone, “Damn you, McGregor!” followed by the accusation of a budget leak. However, Howe accepted the airline’s explanation.

McGregor’s daring ushered in the jet age to North American air routes. In 1952 he informed Howe that the airline’s board of directors had authorized the order of 15 British-built Vickers Viscount prop-jet aircraft. The minister thought the airline would do better in North America and responded skeptically: “Your blood be on your own head! You’ll never get them on time.” Some two years later, Howe telegraphed McGregor congratulations when the first Viscount arrived on schedule.

The early entry of the Viscount into service in 1955 enabled the Canadian company in 1963 to become the first major airline in the world to have its entire fleet turbine-powered. Replacement for the ubiquitous DC-3, the super-quiet Viscount became a passenger’s delight, “the happiest thing that ever happened”, according to McGregor. United, the largest U.S. airline, eventually acquired even more Viscounts than TCA.

With the Viscount purchase McGregor stuck his neck out and won. Like Howe, his wary operational experts questioned British equipment and its after-sale servicing. Retired operations boss Herb Seagrim recalls, “We went along with the president, thinking the Viscount was perhaps too avant-garde, but there was no reasonable alternative.” Retired sales vice-president Gordon Wood recalls how McGregor came to his home the night before the crucial board meeting, suggesting support because the operations people were not too enthusiastic.

McGregor knew the power of blunt truth. His puritan approach to business ethics contributed to TCA’s decision in 1956 to trade off its two-year-old route to Mexico in exchange for Canadian Pacific’s short-haul routes in Quebec and Ontario. Although on opposite teams, CP’s amiable president Grant McConachie and McGregor, both fighters, remained friends. While the two were lunching together in Montreal some time later, McGregor asked how the new route had worked out. Puffing on his cigar with a twinkle in his eye, the CP Air president said, only half in jest, “Not so good–it’s costing me two or three Cadillacs a year.”

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