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Former Air Canada CEO and Concordia grad continues to soar

Pierre Jeanniot, BSc 57, LLD 97, has a lifetime of accomplishments under his belt
April 16, 2019
By Toula Drimonis

Imagine having a job, a wife, and three children while taking night courses in math and physics, along with business classes at a different university in a language you barely understand.

And excelling, while working 80 hours a week.

Pierre Jeanniot, BSc 57, LLD 97 Pierre Jeanniot, BSc 57, LLD 97 | Photo: Kant Photography

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.”

Illustrious career

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.

Eric Molson, Fred Lowy, Pierre Jeanniot Concordia University bestowed an honorary doctorate on Pierre Jeanniot in 1997. Pictured above are: Eric Molson, Fred Lowy, Pierre Jeanniot

Jeanniot is most proud of how IATA’s restructuring made the industry safer. “We were able to cut the ratio of accidents by 50 per cent, by focusing on air-traffic controllers and airports, not just airplanes,” he says.

Today Jeanniot is president of Jinmag Inc., a management, investment and consulting firm. He’s been appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada, a member of  the Order of Quebec and an Officer of  France’s Ordre de la Légion d’Honneur. Since 2016, he has been Chair of Concordia’s Aviation Think Tank.

With his career being nothing short of illustrious, Jeanniot fully credits Concordia’s night classes for “giving him the opportunity to kickstart it.”

At 85 years of age, the ground-breaking innovator hasn’t lost any of his enthusiasm for taking on new challenges.

“The future is just around the corner,” he says. “The goal is to see what’s coming. You need to anticipate it and be part of it.”


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