CAA Executive Returns Air Travel to the Glamorous Life

During pandemic, Jay Woo (’12) developed a VIP experience for air travelers

In the pandemic pause that threatened to leave the aviation industry paralyzed, Jay Woo (’12), president and CEO of the Canadian Automobile Association (CAA), emerged as a dynamic leader in the travel industry.

CAA is the Canadian operation of AAA (originally known as American Automobile Association). Together, clubs in the U.S. and Canada serve more than 60 million members.

But in 2021, CAA was struggling to serve anyone. CAA members weren’t going anywhere due to lockdowns that lasted the better part of a year.

“As a poor 10-year-old in Ottawa, I watched planes overhead, knowing flying lessons were only a distant dream.”

— Jay Woo (’12)

Woo knew it was time to act. While navigating the challenges of leading and retaining his travel staff, he took a shot on a creative collaboration with flagship carrier Air Canada to revive the glamor of airline travel.

A Passion for Aviation and Service

Woo dates his love of aviation to fourth grade. “As a poor 10-year-old in Ottawa, I watched planes overhead, knowing flying lessons were only a distant dream,” he recalls.

Going to Embry-Riddle was an early aspiration, but the death of his father forced him to stay close to home where he earned his first degree in psychology from Carleton University in Ottawa. He eventually studied and saved enough to earn his pilot’s license and join Hope Air, flying supplies and passengers in need of medical treatment. He earned enough flight hours to qualify as a medevac pilot.

He continues to volunteer for Hope Air today. Ironically, it was this humanitarian work that sparked an idea for luxury travel.

All Eyes on Air Travel

Throughout the pandemic, Woo dedicated weekends to loading his Cessna 182 Skylane with surgical masks and N95 respirators, delivering more than 115,000 pieces of personal protective equipment to healthcare workers in remote areas of Quebec.

While flying on these missions, Woo worried about the strain on the aviation industry. As CEO of a company that served and protected millions of travelers, he wondered if CAA could help aviation recover. He had already developed predictive models at CAA to identify where motorists would break down, using what he learned at Embry-Riddle in his meteorology and mathematical modeling courses. Applying similar principles to aviation, he recognized that the pandemic’s disruption had the potential to be devastating. “There is no slack in the process chain whatsoever,” he says. “A disruption to anything means mayhem.”

It was after one of his many Hope Air flights, looking down over an empty airport, that Woo began channeling a hero he discovered in an aviation history class at Embry-Riddle: Juan Trippe, founder of Pan American World Airways. What if CAA could make travelers feel as pampered as they did in the glory days of Pan Am? He imagined a dedicated airline serving CAA members in style.

Woo challenged his team to brainstorm ways to revive the VIP service of a bygone era. CAA Premier Collection Tours took shape. In 10 months’ time, passengers filled the 78 business class seats on Air Canada Airbus A-320s. Members were treated to an exclusive experience that started at a dedicated terminal where they were greeted with champagne and appetizers, then walked a red carpet to board the plane. A gourmet buffet awaited them when the planes reached cruising altitude. At arrival at their destination, limos awaited.

The personalized travel experience was an immediate hit that is still going strong, with planned additions to new “bucket list” destinations in Asia and Europe.

Woo has encouraged his staff to enjoy the tour packages they created, but he has been too busy for a getaway. He is completing his medical degree at the University of Toronto, inspired by his work at Hope Air. Once again, he points out an Embry-Riddle connection.

“I hope to combine medical science with the knowledge I gained from Embry-Riddle in mathematical modeling to develop predictive models to improve medical diagnosis,” he says.

Woo’s innovative contribution to travel did not go unnoticed. CAA/AAA named him a “Bold Move” honoree at a recent conference. Woo is making bold moves at Embry-Riddle too, contributing to scholarships as a Bronze Eagle donor and continuing his legacy of service to people and an industry in need.