Air Canada Cargo’s freighter frenzy
12 / 01 / 2023
Boeing 767F. Photo: Air Canada
For an airline that stripped itself of maindeck passenger-cargo combination aircraft and freighters in the 1990s, Air Canada is certainly now making up for lost time.
The airline’s current freighter order book represents a hefty financial investment.
Air Canada Cargo currently has three Boeing B767 freighters that have been converted from its own passenger fleet and is due to receive the fourth shortly as part of a plan to convert eight of its B767 aircraft.
At the beginning of 2021, it was announced that Air Transport Services Group’s (ATSG) Cargo Aircraft Management subsidiary had agreed to purchase the first two B767-300ER aircraft for conversion by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and lease back to Air Canada.
Air Canada also ordered two factory-built B767-300Fs in April last year that are due to enter service early this year.
Additionally, the airline is due to take delivery of two newbuild B777Fs in 2024, a few months apart.
This will see Air Canada Cargo go from three to seven freighters between now and June 2023. The company expects to have 12 freighters by the end of 2024.
These efforts to more than triple the freighter fleet will allow Air Canada Cargo to more efficiently plan and operate cargo flights, says Jason Berry, vice president – Cargo – Air Canada (speaking to Air Cargo News in November).
Berry, who formerly worked for cargo airlines Alaska Airlines and Cargolux, joined Air Canada in January 2021 and recently resigned to rejoin Alaska Air subsidiary Horizon Air as senior vice president of operations, explains: “It’s very difficult to balance currently. it’s not really a fleet when you have a few aircraft.
“We need to get a few more aeroplanes so we can build in some circuit breakers into the schedule, because we’re currently utilising aeroplanes almost 14 hours a day. For a 767 that’s quite high.”
While the freighters “bring a new level of complexity” they are key as belly capacity hasn’t returned to 2019 levels, Berry says.
Air Canada retired 30 widebody 767s from its fleet during the pandemic.
But the freighters are also meeting a need not met by passenger aircraft, he points out.
“We’re seeing leisure travel being a focus versus business. Those places are not always where the cargo lanes are.
“So, while there is a lot of capacity back in the market, it may not necessarily be where we in the cargo world need it to be.”
Berry is confident the freighters will prove their worth in a current challenging market with more capacity than since the pandemic began.
“50% of the world’s freighters are over 30 years old today. The amount of capacity will be outstripped by the number of aircraft retiring.
“Even with all the orders on the books today we will still have a shortfall of freighters by 2030.”
He adds: “I am not concerned about our freighters. Combination carriers have historically done well, even through downturns because they’re able to leverage both (the cargo and passenger markets).
“We’ll be able to build with our passenger network and freighter network combined. We’ll be able to be creative with our fleet. And we should continue to endure.”
And the airline hasn’t ruled out adding yet more freighters.
“I’d say right now 12 is enough,” says Berry. But it doesn’t mean we’re done. We are still looking at options. We have a lot to do to grow and build our network.”
As well as building its freighter fleet, Air Canada Cargo is busy adding new routes and increasing frequencies within existing routes.
In late September 2022, the carrier announced the launch of a five-times-a-week B767 freighter service from Canada’s St. John’s International Airport to Frankfurt and Madrid.
In November, it added B767 freighter flights to Dallas and Atlanta.
It has also expanded its presence in Latin America with a service to Bogota, and has added an additional frequency to Frankfurt.
“The entrance into the US south with Dallas and Atlanta is important for us and Bogota has always been a good market for us,” says Berry.
When the first converted 767 freighters entered service in October 2021, they operated on routes linking Toronto to Miami, Quito, Lima and Mexico City.
Guadalajara was also added to the network, the first time Air Canada Cargo served this destination.
Guadalajara is a good example of a route that wouldn’t previously have been considered with passenger operations, says Berry.
“We’d never flown a passenger plane to Guadalajara. Now we have a freighter flying three times a week. And it’s been a tremendous market for us.”
These new market additions will not likely be the last. Berry says: “I think you’ll see some additional markets.”
“We’re not chasing where the hot market is,” he stresses. “We’re building this off long-term data and a long-term strategy. We want to build out a network that will be robust and will be there for a long time.
“Although our Asia capacity is down dramatically, we are growing at a rapid pace in Latin America, the US, Mexico and Europe. And it’s thanks to these freighters.”
As well as its burgeoning freighter fleet, Air Canada has 85 widebody passenger planes. Overall, its network covers six continents.
Integrating the cargo business into the existing passenger business has been important for the success of the former and the strengthening of the latter, post-pandemic.
“A third of the cargo that goes on and off of a freighter connects to one of our passenger planes,” says Berry.
“We’re already seeing a virtuous cycle where we’re generating additional tonnage on our passenger planes that we didn’t have before.”
Air Canada has two key advantages in the market, he adds. First, it is one of only two airlines in North America operating both passenger and cargo planes.
Secondly, it maximises its scope for flexibility by maintaining hubs at Toronto Pearson International and Montréal–Trudeau International Airport in the far south east of Canada, Vancouver International Airport on the south west coast, plus Calgary in south west Canada.
The airline also operates out of Edmonton International Airport, north of Calgary.
“I think what makes us unique is that we are the only widebody combination carrier in North America.
“What is unique to Air Canada is we are the only carrier to have a gateway on the west coast and on the east coast. So we can go over the transpacific and the transatlantic.
“Traditional freighter operators go one way. They come into the United States or North America and they come back out the same way.
“We’re able to leverage having coastal hubs to really take advantage of the shortest flight time and the quickest routes to Asia, Europe and Latin America.
The B777s are an important investment for the airline’s cargo strategy.
“It’s a big game changer for us, because the B777s will allow us to create a hub in Vancouver for transpacific flights,” says Berry.
“It’s exciting that the B777s will open up Asia Pacific for us while our B767s will continue to really be our bread and butter to Latin America, the US and Europe.”
The new freighters will also help balance out capacity from season to season and ease pressure on freight forwarders.
“Traditionally in the summer, the big US carriers and Air Canada are all extremely heavy to transatlantic, because everyone travels to Europe during the summer, explains Berry.
“Then when the winter comes, they take all that (cargo) capacity out all the widebody passenger planes, and they go south to Cancun and to Mexico and leisure markets.
“And it really puts a lot of pressure on the freight forwarders and leaves them scrambling for capacity.
“There’s excess capacity in summer and not enough capacity in the winter to take care of their normal production.”
He adds: “Our freighters are like seasonality busters – they take seasonality out of our passenger network.
“As we go very heavy into Europe in the summer, that’s probably when our freighters will be getting heavy checks and getting work done.
“Then in the winter, when our passenger market starts to fly back to leisure destinations, our freighters will jump in and supplement that lift.
“We’re going to be unique in that our customers will have year-round steady capacity that’s predictable.”
How does the future look?
Air Canada is now focusing on restoring the business.
“Right now the core priority is rebuilding the airline back to what it was,” says Berry.
The company’s third quarter 2022 results for the period ending September 2022 was the first quarter since the pandemic that Air Canada recorded positive operating income.
President and chief executive Michael Roussea noted the major role that cargo is playing in the company when he said: “Air Canada Cargo is consistently contributing to our results.”
Berry points out: “We have been slower to recover than the US carriers. So it’s great for us to start to get back into normal numbers.
Strong markets for the airline include e-commerce, despite the slowdown, and equine transport.
“We’re seeing still good trends, despite the macroeconomic situation out there. Things are pointing in the right direction. It’s no longer just us flying key freighters. It feels like we’re a passenger airline again, that the network is getting back to becoming whole.
In terms of the outlook for the business in 2023, Berry says: “We see 2023 as a pretty big growth year for us.”
He says this is partly because of organic growth from its freighters, but also because as the passenger network moves back towards full capacity – expected 90-95% by the summer schedule – this will benefit belly capacity.
“While the network may never look the same as it did pre-pandemic, we know it’s going to come back to some degree because the world will continue to travel.”
Speaking about the height of cargo during the pandemic, Berry says while some newer stakeholders may well reduce their stake or exit the market completely as conditions become less favourable, companies would do well to remain on guard.
“I just don’t think we should underestimate any of these new entrants in the market.
“Blockbuster underestimated Netflix and look what happened. So I think we should never have any level of complacency.”
As for Berry, he believes a cargo strategy incorporating the basics is wise to carry from one role to another.
He says: “I think the biggest thing is you have to focus on what you can control.
“It’s stuck with me from day one how important safety it is in what we do.
“And I think that I’ve been really fortunate to work with companies where safety is considered first and foremost, and that continues to stick with me.
“Cargo has a lot of variables, you have to be agile, but your commercial and operational teams must be aligned.
“Carriers that get that right. that’s how you win. And I think that my secret sauce is alignment.”