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David Solloway: Frequent flyer

Canada Jetlines president David Solloway has bounced between jobs in locales such as New Delhi, Bali, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Jamaica
Canada Jetlines president David Solloway plans to launch Canada’s first ultra-low-cost carrier in spring 2015 | Richard Lam

Jobs in exotic locales such as Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong, Bali and Jamaica have helped Canada Jetlines president David Solloway lead a dashing, globe-trotting life.

None of those posts, however, was as glamorous as New Delhi.

The 62-year-old was United Airlines’ (UA) general manager for the Indian subcontinent when he was in his late 40s.

“They were the most fabulous parties you could ever go to,” he says with wide eyes and a big smile.

“Indian rugs were on the lawns and there were big tents. Food was amazing. I met some of the most fantastic characters you could possibly imagine – people truly larger than life.”

Solloway regaled a visitor with anecdotes from his decades spent as an expatriate while sitting in a spartan, temporary office at Vancouver International Airport (YVR).

The contrast is stark.

Even when Solloway moves to new corporate digs, likely in a wing of YVR’s domestic terminal, which is being renovated, he will not have a private office.

Operating frugally is expected of Canada Jetlines, which plans to launch flights next spring. Its business plan is similar to that of Ireland’s Ryanair and of Spirit Airlines and Allegiant Air in the U.S.

Those airlines operate on the basis that customers buy a cheap base fare and then face extra charges for carry-on luggage, checked bags and meals, and even to make a reservation using a credit card instead of a debit card.

Solloway has helped the company find plenty of seed-round investors and he expects the airline to go public on the TSX Venture Exchange in October or November via a reverse takeover.

Heading the airline is something Solloway has trained for his entire life. Not only does he have experience running geographic regions for Canadian Pacific Air Lines in the 1980s and 1990s and United Airlines in the 1990s and early 2000s, he also helped expand the now-defunct Oasis Hong Kong Airlines’ operations to North America when the low-cost, startup airline’s only other route was Hong Kong to London.

“I first knew him by reputation,” said Fritz Blayney, who hired Solloway when Blayney was Oasis’ senior vice-president, North America. “He has a very strong reputation. I was impressed with his ability to stay calm during the hectic startup phase of an airline.”

Blayney also remembers Solloway rolling up his sleeves and doing grunt work, such as personally calling on travel agents to solicit business even though he was the airline’s general manager for North America.

“Sometimes titles get the best of us but he showed that he didn’t think he was above that,” Blayney said. “He was a tireless worker.”

Solloway started his aviation industry career after he completed his diploma in retail merchandising and marketing at Douglas College.

It was 1973 and Canadian Pacific Air Lines (CPA) hired him to book reservations in Vancouver.

Solloway worked up to being in charge of all of CPA’s local ethnic travel agency accounts and impressed a vice-president enough to be tapped to go to Singapore to be CPA’s passenger sales manager in the city state.

Promotions followed and Solloway worked his way up to be CPA’s general manager for Southeast Asia, based in Bangkok, and the airline’s general manager for China and Southeast Asia, based in Hong Kong.

UA recruited him to be its general manager for Thailand in 1995 and then had him run its China office.

When his boss suggested in late 1999 that he move to New Delhi to head the company’s Indian operations, Solloway immediately said yes.

“Don’t you want to go home and speak to your wife about the move?” his boss asked. 

“No,” Solloway said. “She will be OK with it.”

Indeed, he explained, his now ex-wife shared his love of travel and was similarly excited at the prospect of uprooting with no warning.

More moves were in store.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, put UA’s business into free fall, so the airline chopped its Indian operations and laid off tens of thousands of workers company-wide. It retained Solloway on a yearlong contract, however, to help it determine how best to restructure.

He went to Bali, Indonesia, for about six months and then finished the contract back home in Richmond, where he had just renovated a house.

“Thank goodness, I was approached by Vancouver Airport Services (now Vantage Airport Group),” Solloway said. “No one else came knocking at my door in Vancouver.”

Vantage wanted Solloway to do marketing and be commercial director at its new airport in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

So, three months after returning to Vancouver he packed his bags, sold his house and headed to the Caribbean.

“I just thought, ‘That’s it. I’ll be a lifelong expat,’” Solloway said. “I’ll never get to come back to Canada until I retire.”

But the chance to return to Vancouver would come.

Stephen Miller, who founded and then sold Dragonair to Cathay Pacific, called on Solloway to run North American operations for Miller’s new low-cost airline, Oasis.

Solloway oversaw the company’s Hong Kong-to-Vancouver flights and worked out logistics for adding routes to California and New York.

Losses and feuding among Oasis’ investors grounded the airline permanently in April 2008, but Solloway was not out of work long.

A former employee of his in Jamaica, Curtis Grad, was newly the CEO of an airport in Jordan. Grad contracted Solloway to be a senior adviser and Solloway started commuting between Vancouver and Amman.

The global economic meltdown shrivelled the global travel sector, but big-thinking executives at large airlines saw opportunity.

Air China, for example, used the downturn to eat into other airlines’ business by morphing from a mostly domestic carrier to one with a global focus. It turned to Solloway to be its senior adviser for Canada, based in Vancouver.

“That was one of the most interesting jobs I’ve ever done,” Solloway said. “My job was to improve [sales] distribution and the in-flight product and represent them in Canada. I could concentrate on specific projects and recommend changes to the airline.”

Canada Jetlines co-founders Jim Scott and Dix Lawson asked Solloway to assess their business plan. The plan was so good that Solloway was convinced the time was right to make another job change.

He sold some of his toys, including a boat and a hot rod, and used the proceeds to invest in the fledgling airline.

He is convinced that the company will fly and be profitable within 14 months.

“You build the airline people want to fly,” he said. “We all would love first-class seats and showers like they have on Emirates but that’s not really what people want. People want to get from Point A to Point B safely and inexpensively.”