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WestJet Cargo builds a freighter operation from scratch

The hiring of a new cargo chief from one of the world’s top cargo airlines to coincide with the arrival of a first freighter aircraft demonstrates how serious Canadian airline WestJet is about becoming a significant player in airfreight.

WestJet last week named Kirsten de Brujin as executive vice president for cargo to take over from Charles Duncan, who will now focus on the company’s ultra-low-cost offerings as president of subsidiary Swoop and soon-to-be acquired Sunwing Airlines. The company also promoted Jeff Harris to vice president of cargo, a role he held on an interim basis since last July. 

De Brujin will be responsible for building up the dedicated cargo capabilities, organization and service offerings as the airline looks to capitalize on strong demand for air cargo in North America and the hyper-growth of e-commerce sales that heavily depend on fast air transport.

She worked 20 months as senior vice president, cargo sales and network planning, at Qatar Airways, the largest heavy cargo airline by volume, not counting express package carriers such as FedEx and UPS. Qatar has a fleet of 32 large widebody freighters. Prior to her tenure at Qatar, de Brujin served as vice president, cargo pricing and interline, at Emirates SkyCargo, the second-largest nonparcel air carrier, for nearly five years. She also spent more than nine years in management at Martinair Cargo and Air France KLM Martinair Cargo.

WestJet’s new CEO, Alexis von Hoensbroech, also has a cargo background. Before heading Austrian Airlines, he was chief commercial officer at Lufthansa Cargo for almost four years.

On Friday, WestJet Cargo welcomed the first of four 737-800 converted freighters to its Calgary, Alberta, home base and disclosed that the aircraft are being leased from BBAM Ltd. Partnership, which has contracted with Boeing (NYSE: BA) to modify 31 used aircraft into full cargo configuration. The first WestJet plane was converted by Guangzhou Aircraft Maintenance Engineering Co., a licensed Boeing partner, in China.

WestJet plans to launch freighter service this summer with two aircraft and have all four converted freighters flying cargo by the end of the year. Officials say the freighters will focus on express delivery and e-commerce customers. They will also complement cargo moving through the broader passenger network and be used for one-off charters when not busy flying their regular shuttle schedule.

The standard-size 737-800s are well suited for express delivery networks where frequency is more important than quantity because they have narrow bodies that can be quickly loaded and unloaded, and are much more fuel efficient than older aircraft.

WestJet is entering a Canadian air cargo market dominated by Cargojet (TSX: CJT) and in which Air Canada (OTCUS: ACDVF) is also expanding, but both those carriers operate in a slightly different niche with larger freighters. 

Cargo conversions involve extensive engineering and manufacturing capability to ensure structural integrity and safety that will pass muster with regulators. Tasks include covering windows, reinforcing the floor in the main cabin to support large pallets, cutting in a large door, adding a rigid barrier to protect the cockpit from shifting loads and installing a mechanical cargo-handling system.

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

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