Canadian airline WestJet on Thursday flew a dedicated freighter in commercial service for the first time, culminating a longer-than-expected journey building a cargo airline within a 27-year-old passenger organization. 

Representatives from the new cargo division and other stakeholders gathered at the company’s Toronto airport hangar to welcome the inaugural flight from Calgary and the first of three Boeing 737-800 converted freighters that will soon enter service. 

After a 10-month delay getting off the ground, WestJet Cargo could face yet another setback if pilots for the entire airline choose to go on strike next month over unresolved labor talks. 

The dedicated freighter service is a joint venture between WestJet Cargo and GTA Group, an aviation services company formed last year in partnership with Emirates’ Dnata ground division. GTA will provide cargo handling for the freighters and help market capacity in addition to providing capital for the new cargo venture.

The fledgling network connects four Canadian cities, including Halifax and Vancouver. WestJet will also operate daily flights between Toronto and Miami, as well as Vancouver and Los Angeles. Thursday’s flight represented the cargo division’s soft launch ahead of the first official revenue-bearing flight that is scheduled to depart Halifax on Friday afternoon.

WestJet Cargo is ramping up operations in phases to minimize mistakes as the team familiarizes itself with the 737-800 aftermarket freighter, said Kristen de Bruijn, executive vice president of cargo, on a recent edition of the Cargo Masterminds podcast from STAT Media. A second freighter will be deployed a week after the initial launch, followed by a third freighter in another three weeks.

The strategy is for high-frequency shuttles in a tight network serving freight forwarders and other businesses. A fourth aircraft being reconfigured for cargo at a facility in Costa Rica is expected to be completed by mid-June and join the fleet sometime during the summer. WestJet will be able to incrementally add destinations once all the aircraft are operating.

“In order to be a reliable airline we have to be a little bit careful with the startup,” de Bruijn said on the show. “So the approach we took is to make sure we gradually start the operation so we always have a spare plane on the ground. It’s not the most cost-effective way and could leave opportunities around. But it’s required because we need to start, we need to do it well and we need to do it on time.” 

Launching the stand-alone freighter network required extensive coordination with other parts of the airline, including technical, ground and flight operations groups. In some ways it was more complex than a stand-alone all-cargo startup because there is so much integration with the passenger side of the business. WestJet operates about 160 passenger planes, including 737-800s, that will be able to transload cargo at hubs with the freighter network.

The 737-800 converted freighter has a maximum payload of about 25 tons.

Cargo flights actually started two days earlier than the date announced a month ago, with another flight from Toronto to Halifax on Friday, according to the freighter schedule on WestJet Cargo. But that is cold comfort for an airline that originally planned to launch all-cargo operations last July after receiving two leased jets that went through Boeing’s 737-800 passenger-to-freighter conversion program and then had to park them until Transport Canada certified the modifications. 

FreightWaves first reported that the certification process for Boeing’s conversion design dragged out because aviation regulators, wary about Boeing’s safety processes following a series of well-publicized accidents and quality control problems, conducted an extremely thorough review rather than rubber-stamp a U.S. approval. 

“The certification didn’t go as planned and we had different expectations about the duration of the certification,” de Bruijn acknowledged in a November interview. 

The company set March 26 as the new start date but had to push it back again, to April 22, after Canadian aviation authorities finally validated the Boeing airframe modifications to allow time to test the aircraft and operational plans. Meanwhile, the fourth freighter is taking longer to convert because it’s from WestJet’s own passenger fleet and required different changes than the ones acquired by the lessor from previous operators.

More trouble possible

And now another threat looms. 

On Tuesday, WestJet pilots overwhelmingly voted to strike if a collective bargaining agreement with the company isn’t reached by May 16, when they will legally be allowed to take job action. Tuesday’s vote came less than a week before the end of federal mediation between management and the Air Line Pilots Association International. The pilots complain the airline is trying to reduce costs by driving down wages and refusing to address scheduling concerns and other working conditions. ALPA said WestJet is losing about 30 pilots per month and could lose up to 20% of its experienced pilot cohort within the next year.

ALPA said it has a $2 million fund to support pilots in the event of a work stoppage, which would cover cargo pilots too. A 21-day cooling off period ends on May 13. If no agreement has been reached at that time, the union can file a 72-hour strike notice. 

Kirsten de Bruijn, WestJet executive vice president, cargo delivered remarks in Toronto celebrating the start of the company’s all-cargo service. (Photo: WestJet)

De Bruijn, who joined WestJet last May from Qatar Airways, has hired many cargo veterans from other airlines around the world and plans to expand the cargo division’s digital distribution channels this year. The airline recently rolled out a new cargo management system from SmartKargo.

Several passenger airlines have invested in freighters for the first time after realizing during the COVID crisis how cargo can be profitable and diversify the business, especially as e-commerce continues to grow. 

WestJet Cargo is opening business as the air cargo market is leveling down from the pandemic peak when capacity was scarce and yields were extremely high for airlines. It is also going up against Air Canada, which last year launched its own freighter network with larger Boeing 767-300 converted freighters, and Cargojet, which operates an overnight express network in Canada for companies such as Amazon and DHL. 

But WestJet’s business case is that there is an underserved air cargo market in Canada. De Bruijn said in a news release on Friday that the company offers “competitive cost advantages, increased choice, reliable on-time performance and exemplary customer service . . . to meet the needs of Canada’s expanding cargo market.”

In related news, Air Canada (OTCUS: ACDVF) on Thursday began twice-weekly freighter operations to Basel, Switzerland, connecting a major pharmaceutical hub with Toronto. Officials said the direct route, year-round service and cold storage facility in Toronto would attract pharmaceutical and life sciences shipments. 

Basel is the latest addition to its freighter network, following Liege, Belgium; Dallas, Atlanta and Bogota, Colombia. Air Canada currently operates three 767 converted freighters and is scheduled to receive two more this year. The fleet plan calls for a dozen widebody cargo jets by the end of next year.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

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