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Nav Canada’s Top Gun

John Crichton hasn’t had his hands on the controls of an airplane since “sometime in the 1980s,” but as top gun at Nav Canada for the past decade he has controlled what is nothing short of a revolution in Canadian aviation: a dramatic overhaul of the second-largest air navigation service (ANS) in the world.


November 30, 2007
By Ken Pole

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John Crichton hasn’t had his hands on the controls of an airplane since “sometime in the 1980s,” but as top gun at Nav Canada for the past decade he has controlled what is nothing short of a revolution in Canadian aviation: a dramatic overhaul of the second-largest air navigation service (ANS) in the world.

While his interest in flying had a fairly typical beginning, in that his father was a World War II Royal Canadian Air Force pilot and that Crichton eventually obtained a commercial licence, he quickly side-slipped into the industry’s administrative segment, managing the Ottawa Flying Club for a couple of years while at university. Then came an opportunity in 1973 to work for Bradley Air Services Ltd., founded by aviation pioneer Russell Bradley, who co-developed with another legend, Weldy Phipps, the ‘tundra tires’ that opened up new markets.

Crichton spent 21 years there, turning it into First Air and the standard-bearer for scheduled services in a market hitherto mostly dependent on Phipps and other bush pilots. “I didn’t do that much flying commercially, mostly around here,” Crichton said. “I quickly got into the management end of it.” And that's where he has remained through a career that saw him become executive vice-president of First Air and then president of the Air Transport Association of Canada (ATAC) before taking on Nav Canada.

During his days at Bradley/First Air, Crichton evidently earned a place in the history books, according to Dennis Patterson, a veteran Northwest Territories politician and cabinet minister. “John Crichton’s leadership helped lay the groundwork for the new territory of Nunavut,” Patterson said, citing numerous upgrades to aircraft, airports, runways and navigational aids. “It was this infrastructure that made Iqaluit, Rankin Inlet and Cambridge Bay transportation hubs.”

Crichton’s tenure at Bradley/First Air also saw the inauguration of direct service between Iqaluit and Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, a route that remained operational for 20 years. Crichton was called a “visionary” by Jim Britton, at the time Baffin regional director for the federal government. “Under John’s stewardship, northern transportation expanded and improved in a very material way,” Britton said. “It was an instrumental step forward … to the creation of Nunavut.” His dedication has been recognized with an honorary life membership in the Northern Air Transport Association; he was similarly honoured by ATAC and, in 2006, was named Transportation Person of the Year by the Transportation Association of Canada.

That same vision came in handy when Crichton tackled Canada’s ANS system years later. As part of the federal transport ministry and thanks to government funding that fell horribly short of legitimate needs, the system had become inefficient and in dire need of an overhaul. Staff shortages, chronic cost overruns on badly-needed capital upgrades, and other problems resulted in frustrating bottlenecks and flight delays.

The industry as a whole feared that unless something drastic was done, the systemic problems, which were exacerbated by political meddling, would simply compound to the point of collapse. There also were issues with ANS being under the same administrative umbrella as aviation safety and regulation.

When the concept of a private-sector operation was floated, Crichton was front and centre, working with government, industry and unions to design a not-for-profit approach to ANS. As chairman of the new corporate entity during the 1995-96 transition, he led the negotiating team that purchased the ANS from Ottawa. That was financed through a $3-billion bond-backed loan Crichton had secured from a syndicate of financial institutions. Once Parliament passed the enabling Civil Air Navigation Services Commercialization Act in June 1996, the transfer took place that November with Crichton handing Ottawa a cheque for $1.5 billion.

Crichton was appointed CEO in 1997, a position which he holds today and will continue to hold for some time to come. While management is his forte, he is certain that his operational roots have given him useful insight. “I've always considered that a commercial pilot’s licence as almost the equivalent of a university degree,” he said in a wide-ranging interview coming up to his 10th anniversary as Nav Canada’s president and CEO. “Also, you develop a tremendous empathy for the people who actually fly airplanes – an understanding of their concerns and their priorities. That's a very important managerial tool. Understanding their problems and how to address them. I found that to be very valuable right to this day – being able to walk the walk as well as talk
the talk.”

While he doesn’t really regret his career path, Crichton does admit that there’s the odd day “when the walls are closing in with a hundred other problems” and it would be nice to take off even though that would bring with it a whole other set of challenges. “Yeah, but those are a lot more manageable than some of the ones I have to deal with some days. But I have no real regrets because I’ve stayed in the business very closely and a lot of friends and co-workers are pilots…. Aviation is my life’s work, very much a passion.”

Looking back at his career so far, he takes tremendous pride in having participated in helping to open up the North at Bradley/First Air. There is equal pride in what has been achieved at Nav Canada, doing things which have been commended by the global aviation community. There were early concerns in some circles that a private company could not manage such an essential service in the best interests of the public, but the facts speak for themselves.

Losses-of-separation between aircraft flown under instrument flight rules, a benchmark for ANS safety, have been effectively halved since 1997. While the overall number of ANS staff has been reduced by 1,000, there has been a net gain of more than 250 air traffic controllers and productivity has improved by more than 20 per cent to some 2,050 air traffic movements per employee.

Having been involved in Nav Canada from its conception to its birth and now seeing the operation entering its second decade, Crichton demurred when asked whether there were other challenges he would like to take on. “I usually focus on the here and now and I’m very happy with what I’m doing,” he said. “There are still lots of challenges and I consider that I have a very good job.  So at this stage of my career, I’m not really trying to find new challenges…. I’m really happy with the people here and with the direction we’re going.”

Among the “lot of things” still to do is the planned introduction of what he describes as the world’s most advanced automated flight data processing system. It is expected to enhance three key Nav Canada values: safety, service and cost efficiency.

Then there’s Nav Canada’s growing international presence in terms of marketing systems which have been developed in-house and which other countries’ ANS providers have eyed jealously. Delegations from at least 20 countries have visited Nav Canada facilities. While most tend to think their individual air traffic situations are unique, there are common challenges and Nav Canada is well positioned to capitalize on those.

Crichton, whose tenure hasn't been totally free of labour issues – some a legacy from the company’s public-sector roots – is trying to develop “a culture of employees taking ownership of what we do and trying to raise the engagement levels” so as to complete the long and sometimes painful transition from the government model.

Ideally, he wants Nav Canada employees to see themselves as “partners” in achieving management’s goals. That involves making them “feel good” about their position within the company, believe they’re being treated fairly and have confidence that the company is on the right track. Internal surveys evidently suggest the effort has been worthwhile, that Nav Canada’s employees take special pride in what they do for the company and, through it, for the aviation industry in particular and Canada’s economy in general.

“We’re all in this together,” Crichton said. “High-achieving companies are ones that have highly-engaged employees and on the human resources side of things that’s a big priority for us. We’re slowly making progress and labour relations have definitely improved over the last few years. Both the union leadership and the management have to work at that. I’m delighted that we’re starting to have some success, but I attribute that to both parties.”

The evolution of government-mandated local airport authorities has generally paralleled Nav Canada’s development and in many ways has made it easier for the ANS provider to deal with and resolve any issues faster and more effectively that when it was run by a centralized bureaucracy.

“It’s been positive from our point of view,” Crichton said of the relationship with the airport authorities. “Not that there aren't challenges. We’re trying to deal jointly with our mutual customers, airlines, on various issues and trying to achieve objectives and efficiencies. I think people are trying to honestly work together and find solutions.”

While the original idea was to have a not-for-profit operation, that has become a bit of a misnomer. Nav Canada is a non-share capital corporation that has no shareholders and no share equity. It is governed by four ‘members’ who perform many of the traditional roles of shareholders: the federal government, the airlines, the business and general aviation community, and the em-ployees’ unions.

Each member is represented on the Nav Canada board. Airlines have four representatives, the government three, the unions two and business and general aviation one. There also are four unrelated directors, plus Crichton. In other words, customers account for five of the 15 seats on the board and no member has a majority.

“Being a non-share capital corporation simply means that when we make money we don’t distribute it to shareholders,” Crichton said, likening Nav Canada to a cooperative. “If it does well in a year, then the people who buy from the cooperative get it back, generally in the form of reduced charges. We think that’s the right way to do it because we’re a natural monopoly. It’s a great way to ensure from a financial point of view that the monopoly doesn’t engage in unfair pricing practices and so on.”

There have been predictable gripes over the years from some elements of the aviation community about fee increases, but the capital investments made by Nav Canada in building a better ANS system aren’t cheap. Since their introduction, ANS charges have increased by some 10 percent; that is well below inflation, which compounded at nearly 20 percent over the same  period. Moreover, ANS charges remain at least 20 percent below the airline ticket tax which was revoked with the advent of Nav Canada.

“If you compare our charges and our financial performance against other major ANS providers around the world, it would seem that we’re pretty much leading the pack,” Crichton said. “We run like a business, there’s no question about that, and we want to run efficiently and we want
to produce value for the customers both in service and in cost.”

Asked whether Nav Canada’s corporate status implies any greater liability exposure than when ANS was government-run, he said it does in the sense that governments tend to self-insure – which is facilitated by their ability to generate any needed revenues through tax increases. So Nav Canada, like any other non-public corporation, has to buy insurance on the market. “Right now we have the largest insurance policy in the world – US$3 billion through a wide variety of insurance companies.”

While Crichton still puts in the odd 12-hour day, which was virtually routine in the early going, his work day when he’s not travelling, which is about 30 percent of the time, tends to be more conventional in length these days. However, he still tends to work six days a week while finding time to spend with his “very active” family and walking his dog.

“It’s a combination of dealing with internal and external issues. The travel is mostly in North America and Europe, and visiting employees at our more than 160 staffed sites across the country. I try to get out to meet people and talk to them and so on, which is a never-ending situation.” The board and various committees also are very active, putting even more demand on his time. “It’s just like any large corporation,” Crichton shrugged matter-of-factly.

Was there ever a point at which he thought he had bitten off more than he could chew? It seems there may have been a few early on, especially during the first negotiations. “There were days where I sort of wondered, but I never really wavered. I thought it was the right goal and even though it was pretty tough at times to get there, I never really doubted it was possible.”