In late June, Canada-based WestJet announced plans to add four 737-800BCFs to its fleet as the carrier’s first foray into dedicated freighters. With the first aircraft expected in February, and a plan to operate all four by Q2 of next year, Cargo Facts caught up with Charles Duncan, executive vice president of cargo, to discuss what’s ahead for the carrier’s fleet and network.
Cargo Facts: WestJet has a sizable fleet of 737-700s that is in fact larger than its -800 fleets. What led to the choice of the -800 over the smaller model?
Charles Duncan: We looked at the number of cargo positions, the payload and, ultimately, just the performance of the airplane for the markets we’ve been looking at. The -800 is better. The -700 freighters are a bit more niche or exotic and frankly, we like the range performance of the 800. We like the payload; I think you would go for the -700 for more specialized missions, if there were a particular airport that required short-field performance or other aspects.
737-800 freighters are relatively small, certainly compared to other freighters that are being used heavily in the Canadian marketplace. We think that gives us quite a bit of flexibility to both serve smaller cities and off-peak demand cycles or just to add frequency in markets.
CF: Was the decision to lease based on it being a lower-risk option, or did you consider converting your own airframes?
CD: We’ve looked at our entire fleet, and our oldest aircraft — the ones that were perhaps the most appropriate feedstock for freighters — are -700s. Our -800s are quite a bit younger, certainly the ones that are owned. I think our oldest -800 is roughly twelve or thirteen years old, so it’s a little bit young as feedstock. The biggest challenge through the whole project is just getting the conversion slots from the various facilities around the world, so we’ve just been very, very focused on that. We’re happy to lease the aircraft in, and with our current passenger fleet, while many of those aircraft are parked today as we’re still coming out of the pandemic, we do expect to return them to service and we’re going to need them for passengers in our network as demand recovers.
CF: What was behind the choice of the Boeing conversion over the IAI conversion or AEI conversion STCs?
CD: We have been an all-Boeing customer going back to our earliest days in 1996. For us in particular, being new to freighters and everything else, we value the relationship with Boeing and, frankly, the expertise of having the OEM stand behind the design and product. For those who are not involved in the industry, it’s always a bit of a surprise how much back and forth there is and how much support the OEMs provide over the entire lifespan of the product, so we’re quite comfortable working with Boeing in that regard, and wanted to maintain a consistency that we have and enjoy with our passenger fleet.
CF: In terms of growing the team and having specialized people and equipment for freighters, how big an investment is this going to be?
CD: We have been studying this and focusing on it for just over a year, and we’ve spent quite a lot of time here looking at the 737 freighter. The reason we chose the 737 is because of the commonality with our existing fleet.
For us, in terms of having the commonality of the freighters with the -800 passenger models, we can use our same group of pilots, for example, and the vast majority of spare parts and, of course, the engines are identical. The training for our aircraft maintenance engineers is the same, and so we’re able to leverage all of the overhead and the WestJet team to make this successful, which helps to minimize the investment. Dare I say, we probably wouldn’t do this if it were an aircraft type that were not common with another part of WestJet.
CF: Has WestJet already secured long-term commitments from customers to support and sustain these freighter operations?
CD: We’ve got a number of fantastic customers on your long list, and we’re always in conversations with them. Ultimately, by announcing this [introduction plan], we’re able to have now much, much deeper and meaningful discussions with all of our customers around how best to deploy these freighters next year. There are lots of different opportunities that we’re studying and we’re still very much in the planning phase, but we’re very bullish. I think we see more opportunities than just having four aircraft, and it’s just hard to prioritize which way to deploy them.
CF: Will the introduction of the new fleet be accompanied by new cargo-only routes?
CD: We have several different network plans that we’ve sketched out, and one of the reasons that we made our announcement as early as we did is to help facilitate discussions with our customers around what they would like the network to look like. So it’ll be primarily domestic within Canada, although in addition to that, I do expect we will fly transborder into the U.S., and we’ll have aircraft available for charters. Those could, of course, go domestically and transborder, but we’ll have the range to serve points in Mexico and the Caribbean as well. We already do decent cargo business today in the Caribbean, with perishables and other mixed cargo, both northbound and southbound. So we expect these freighters to fulfill all of those market niches.
This story originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Cargo Facts.
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