That’s what Pierre Jeanniot did soon after he arrived in Montreal from his native France. And it is all that hard work that he credits with launching him on a career trajectory on which he literally soared.
Jeanniot came to Canada with no knowledge of English. Since it was necessary for him to hold down a day job, night classes were his only chance at a higher education. For the unilingual Jeanniot, only an English-language institution presented that option.
“I’m very thankful to Concordia,” he says, “because it was the only university in Montreal offering the opportunity to study at night at the time.”
He remembers taking his first introductory physics course. “It was quite a struggle for me, because I had to read the course load in English, translate it into French, and then deliver my assignments in English, so in essence it was three times the work,” he explains. “The first three months were literally ‘sink or swim,’ but I was determined and hard-working and my professors were very supportive.”
Driven to excel
While Jeanniot dreamed of becoming an engineer, there was no engineering degree at the time, so he took physics and math. While still at Concordia (Sir George Williams University at the time), he began taking business classes at McGill. He also had a job, a wife, and three children while taking on all this additional workload. Jeanniot credits his focus and work discipline for being able to juggle it all.
“I never went to a party,” he says laughing. “I just got used to working 80 hours a week and it instilled a work ethic in me that served me well throughout my career.”
As highly motivated as Jeanniot was, he admits to never having had a concrete career plan. “I simply wanted to see how things work and how I could make them better,” he says.
Changing the face of Canada’s largest airline
When Jeanniot graduated with a bachelor of science in 1957, he was already working at Air Canada (then Trans-Canada Airlines) as a junior technician. Thirty years later, he would be the company’s president and CEO.
From 1984 to 1990, he oversaw the airline’s ambitious privatization project and was instrumental in changing the course of the aviation industry. In 1964, he adapted and found a way to adequately protect a flight data recorder from the shock of a crash so it could provide valuable data. That device is more widely known today as the “black box”, which, ironically, is orange.
Jeanniot also introduced non-smoking flights. As CEO, he was receiving letters from medical associations warning of the dangers of second-hand smoke.
“I thought, why not take 14 out of our 28 Montreal-Toronto routes and make them non-smoking?” he says. “The marketing department was reluctant, and the tobacco industry initially boycotted us, but the market responded to our decision and we actually gained five per cent of the traffic.” In 1987, Air Canada became the first airline in the world with a fleet-wide non-smoking policy.
“All of these changes required a tremendous amount of work,” he says. “It served me well that I was already accustomed to working 80 hours a week.”
Upon his departure from Air Canada, Jeanniot served from 1993 to 2002 as director general and CEO of IATA (the International Air Transport Association, a United Nations organization). In recognition of his outstanding contributions to the international civil aviation industry, upon his retirement from IATA, he was awarded the lifetime title of director general emeritus.