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Air Canada

WestJet Joins Cargo Frenzy With First Air Freighters

Madhu Unnikrishnan
June 23rd, 2021 at 5:07 PM EDT

WestJet is making a bet that the pandemic’s e-commerce boom will last by adding at least four Boeing 737-800 freighters to its fleet next year. The passenger-to-cargo conversions will be the first dedicated freighters in the Canadian carrier’s fleet.

The first of the aircraft will enter the fleet in February 2022 and will enter revenue service in April, after training and Canadian regulatory review, which is necessary as the aircraft will be the first 737-800F in the country. WestJet aims to have all four freighters in its fleet by next summer, said Charles Duncan, executive vice president for cargo and president of Swoop. Depending on demand and how the aircraft perform in WestJet’s network, the carrier will weigh adding more freighters in the future.

With the addition of these aircraft, WestJet joins Air Canada, which said last week that it is adding its first freighters later this year. Air Canada, however, is converting several of its own retired Boeing 767-300ERs to cargo.

WestJet has long had a thriving belly-hold cargo business, but it was minor compared with its passenger business. The Covid-19 crisis changed all that. The carrier’s cargo business grew by 40-50 percent during the pandemic, the carrier said. (WestJet, a privately held company, does not disclose revenue figures.) With its new freighters, WestJet is betting that its cargo business will grow and be increasingly important to airlines. “This is a 10-plus year investment for us, and we are taking a long-term view of the future of air cargo,” Duncan said.

Bottlenecks have hampered surface shipping as the world economy begins to shake off its Covid sluggishness, with ports constrained and shipping operating at capacity. But these short-term factors did not play into WestJet’s decision to beef up its cargo fleet. The shift in consumer behavior toward e-commerce is expected to last, Duncan said. “The proportion of retail sales that are shifting to e-commerce will continue to grow after the pandemic.”

The carrier chose 737 freighters for the fleet commonality. This will allow its mainline pilots to operate both passenger and freighter models. But the aircraft’s size also appealed. The 737-800F can operate to smaller airports that can’t accommodate widebody freighters in markets that may not have cargo demand to support larger cargo-only flights. Its smaller size also allows carriers to operate during cargo off-peak hours — during the day, instead of at night, as is usual by widebody freighter operators.

The new aircraft also are WestJet’s first foray into pallet, rather than belly-hold, cargo. The 737-800Fs has 11.5 pallet positions and can carry up to 55,000 pounds of freight. This allows WestJet to expand into larger freight, like seafood and perishable agricultural products, that it cannot easily handle on its passenger 737s, Duncan said.

Initially, the aircraft will operate on domestic routes as Canadian cargo demand is expected to remain strong. WestJet is planning to expand into transborder U.S. cargo routes as it adds more freighters. But the aircraft has a 3,107-miles operating perimeter and could fly routes to Mexico and the Caribbean as well, Duncan said.

WestJet is the latest North American airline to add 737 freighters to their fleets. Mesa Air Group operates a fleet of freighters for DHL, and Sun Country has a freighter subfleet it flies for Amazon. Air Canada will take delivery of two 767-300ER freighters this year, and will add to that fleet in 2022. And during the pandemic, Air Canada, American Airlines and United Airlines were among the North American carriers that operated tens of thousand cargo-only flights on temporarily converted passenger aircraft, also known as “preighters.”

Madhu Unnikrishnan
June 23rd, 2021 at 5:07 PM EDT

Tags: Air Canada WestJet

Photo credit: WestJet will debut its first dedicated freighter next year. WestJet

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