Obituary: Max Ward, whose activism helped usher in Canadian airline deregulation, has died


Founder of Wardair, Max Ward built an operation that grew from humble beginnings to become Canada’s third-largest airline

Max Ward (photo: Alberta Lieutenant-Governor).

Max Ward, bush pilot and airline founder, who helped usher in the era of airline deregulation, has died in Edmonton. His death was first reported by the CBC.

“Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame is heartbroken to hear of the passing of Max Ward,” the Hall said in a statement. “Mr. Ward passed away on Sunday. Our sincere condolences to the Ward family.”

Ward served in the Second World War as a flight instructor for the Royal Canadian Air Force. In 1946, he was a bush pilot and founded his own company, Polaris Charter Co. in Yellowknife, flying a Fox Moth around the Arctic. Seven years later, he founded Wardair, using an Otter that could operate on wheels, skis or floats.

It was the start of a pioneering legacy.

“Mr. Ward’s pioneering of air transportation in the Northwest Territories has been of immeasurable value to Alberta and has maintained for this province its standing as the supply base for the western Arctic and the Yukon Territory,” reads his biography for his induction into the Alberta Order of Excellence.

Ward bought the first ever Boeing aircraft sold in Canada – a 727 used to fly charters between Western Canada and Europe. The aircraft would achieve the highest utilization of any 727 in the world.

“In the early days when we started out, charters didn’t have a very good reputation,” said Ward in a retrospective filmed in 2010. “A lot of people were getting into it and they were kinda haywire. And their planes were falling out of the sky a bit. So I said we wanted to make sure we do this right. So we wanted to make sure we had good service, because they were long flights.”

That service helped establish a loyal following for Wardair. As the charter business grew, Ward added 747s, DC-10s, and among the first Airbus planes sold in Canada – a dozen A310s.

Significant opposition

His airline grew despite significant opposition. And it came from both the established airlines – Air Canada and CP Air – and the federal government.

“When I started out, it was very difficult to be in the airline business,” said Ward. “As a matter of fact Ottawa did its best to keep me out of the airline business. They didn’t mind us flying around in the Arctic way up high, because they weren’t planning in operating in those areas.”

Max Ward, in a 2010 interview, speaks about Wardair’s early days as a scheduled airline (video: Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta).

But Ward didn’t want to stick to flying charters and Arctic flights. His ambitions were to build a world-beating scheduled airline.

Severely restricted by regulations imposed on charters, Ward pushed the federal government to open the airline industry to competition. By the 1984, those dreams came to fruition.

With a fleet of wide-body aircraft, Wardair launched scheduled domestic services in 1986. The airline advertised wider seats and meals served on Royal Doulton china. Wardair economy, they advertised, was as good as the competitors’ business class.

“Wardair Canada established a reputation second to none anywhere in the world for efficient operations and top-rated service to the travelling public,” read the citation for Ward’s induction in the Canadian Aviation Hall of Fame. “But the ‘Open Skies’ concept came too late for Wardair Canada to continue.”

End of a dream

After three years waging fierce competition, Ward could see the writing on the wall.

A former Wardair A310, re-designated the CC-150 Polaris, shows off its new colours in 2013 (photo: DND/Cpl. Roy McLellan).

“We gave it the almighty college try but we weren’t getting the figures,” Ward told McLean’s Magazine in 1989.

“It was fun,” said Ward in his 2010 interview. “You were competing against an airline [Air Canada] that had the government’s coffers behind it. So they could do no wrong.”

That same year, Ward sold his airline to Canadian Airlines. The Wardair A310s were briefly used by CAIL before being sold to the federal government.

The aircraft continue to fly to this day. Their designation – the CC-150 Polaris – echoes the name of Ward’s first operation in Yellowknife. The five aircraft operate both as tankers for the Canadian military and as VIP transport for the Royal Family and Prime Minister.

Ward was born in 1921. He would have turned 99 on November 22.

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