The WestJet press releases are coming in thick and fast, these days. From expansion to new markets, through to mega fleet orders, to putting a core hub focus on Calgary International Airport (YYC), the 26-year-old airline is literally taking off. And it is transitioning into serious air cargo, too. CargoForwarder Global (CFG) grabbed the opportunity of the World Cargo Symposium in London last month, to talk to its Executive Vice President Cargo, Kirsten de Bruijn (KdB), about what it is like to build a cargo fleet and organizational structure from the ground up.

CFG: You took up your new position in MAY22, moving to a new continent and a predominantly passenger-focused airline, until now. How are you enjoying working life over at WestJet?
KdB: It has been interesting first 4 months. Things are very different in Canada – from both the WestJet and the Canadian culture points of view. Working for a private equity airline compared to state-owned ones, there is a lot of focus and free space to develop our cargo strategy. The decision to start with four 737-800BCF freighters had already been taken before I arrived, and they will form the basis of our cargo fleet.

CFG: WestJet comes across as a very vibrant, dynamic airline, and has been active in belly cargo since years. What does the Canadian cargo market look like?
KdB: The Canadian freight market differs greatly from the global one. While freight forwarders bring in part of the business, more than half of our cargo shipments actually come directly from private people and companies simply calling in to book. Because Canada is so large, trucking is not an option and therefore air freight is the logical alternative. We have a huge domestic market with all kinds of customer bookings – many of them for pets. Probably around 80% of that customer contact is animals. Would you book your pet online? Unlikely, because you want to speak to someone about your booking, right? WestJet is a fun, caring airline, so we take a lot of calls. Our customer segmentation is very different to the norm. You could say around 40% of our billing is done via CASS, the rest comes in via credit cards. We therefore have a digital roadmap to improve self-serving capabilities and process efficiencies, and will be cutting over to new platform at some point in the near future.

CFG: What is it like, building the airline’s freighter operations from scratch?
KdB: Super cool! We are learning a lot. Getting the organization up and running is a challenge. Passenger schedules are one thing. How will we ensure freighters operate on time? We need to build up engineering expertise and an inhouse OCC (Operational Control Center), for example.

CFG: You recently appointed Bharat Bhatia as Head of Cargo Operations – what kind of tasks are you looking to cover?
KdB: Yes, we’re very happy to have Bharat and his vast cargo experience from his time at dnata and KLM. We need a strong commercial team for the different customer segments, which include eCommerce as well private customers and freight forwarders. So, the people we are looking to employ need an open mind and a thirst for learning to do sales differently to the global freight set-up. We have to focus on operations, network-planning, scheduling. We’ve been hiring for digital ambition, and high-level competencies and skillsets, looking to select the best human capital there is. WestJet is very modern in its approach, so it also has certain remote positions across Canada.

CFG: Do you have any CEIV certification or commodity expertise build-up plans?
KdB: We already offer all the commodities and will review what is required. Our current focus is on safe and secure freighter operations with proper, trained skills.

CFG: Thank you, Kirsten!

Double the fleet and Calgary as WestJet’s passenger hub
Already operating one of the youngest fleets in North America (circa 170 planes with an average age of under 10 years), the WestJet Group communicated a huge aircraft order on 29SEP22: “With this additional order, the WestJet Group will accept delivery of no fewer than 65 aircraft in the next six years, at least 50 will be 737-10 aircraft,” WestJet Group Chief Executive Officer, Alexis von Hoensbroech announced. Less than a week later, on 05OCT22, the next major announcement was made, billed as a first-of-its-kind, historic partnership: the decision to make Calgary Westjet’s core passenger hub, with an investment of 9 billion CAD, practically doubling its fleet operations out of Calgary to around 100 aircraft, including all 9 of its widebody, intercontinental B787 Dreamliners. “This is less about WestJet. This is about making Alberta the leading province for aviation in Canada, and we are very proud to play a key role in that,” Alexis von Hoensbroech said. “Air connectivity is the only access to a place like Calgary, or Alberta […], as this is so far away from most other geographies, so therefore air connectivity is mission-critical for the economic success of place like Calgary.” While during our interview on 29SEP22, Kirsten de Bruijn told me that “Calgary is not the hub, we have big cargo hubs, too,” pointing to Vancouver and Toronto, for example, the question now, since the 05OCT22 announcement, is whether Calgary will become a main cargo hub, also? Cargo, too, is mission-critical for an economy’s success – more so than passenger.

East meets WestJet
On 07OCT22, WestJet announced the enhancement of its codeshare agreement with Korean Air – one that it has had since 2012 – to include flights across the Pacific to Asia for the first time. Hence, WestJet now has a codeshare on Korean’s flights between both Toronto Pearson (YYZ) and Vancouver International (YVR) in Canada and Incheon International Airport (ICN) in Seoul, South Korea. “This is WestJet’s first reciprocal codeshare with an Asian partner,” the press release underlines. “It’s incredibly exciting for WestJet to codeshare on flights across the Pacific to Asia for the first time […]”, John Weatherill, WestJet Chief Commercial Officer, stated, going on to say: “We’re looking forward to the new opportunities our now reciprocal codeshare will bring to consumers travelling between Canada and Asia.” Tae Joon Kim, Korean Air Senior Vice President and Head of International Affairs & Alliance, said: “We remain committed to bridging Canada, Korea, and Asia through our hub at Incheon Airport.” Whilst it is clear that the primary focus here is on passengers, Korean Air featured as the fifth strongest cargo airline in 2021, so will there be a cargo joint venture in future, too?
WestJet is on a runway – and accelerating. We look forward to following its cargo development and growth.

Brigitte Gledhill

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