Beginning of a fantastic journey
Kirsten de Bruijn, Executive Vice President of Cargo at WestJet, talks about the challenges of starting a new cargo airline as realistic as you can imagine.
Give us a sense of the momentum building up in the run up to the WestJet Cargo freighter operations?
To be very honest, building a cargo airline from scratch is really something that was much more complicated than I had initially envisioned it to be. And then building it within a 27-year-old passenger organisation makes it even more complex, because they're very tuned to their passenger processes. And it's been quite a journey. Coming from global airlines that have been in cargo for many years, you always had people that knew better than you. I think this was the first time where I actually had to know everything myself. So I must say that I have learned more in the last 10 months than that I've had in the in the last five years. I've built a team around me that luckily knows better than me again. So we're getting there. But it's been a fantastic journey.
Give us a sense of the network operations and how many freighters will be in operation by the time of the launch you have later this month?
So we are starting with three and fortunately the fourth tail was delayed. It's still in Costa Rica for the last modifications. And the reason why that was a little bit delayed is because it's a WestJet plane. So the modifications were a bit different than the three planes that we acquired from previous operators. So we start with three and we have a phased approach. We decided that we basically take one tail into production every week. So we start on 22 April with the first one, seven days later we add the second one and then three weeks later, we add the third one. We opted for high frequency, little destinations. As a start-up and with obviously limited repair capabilities with four tails, we can still repair relatively quickly and not spread our wings too far in other areas of Canada. So that's our strategy.
“I've surrounded myself with people who are better at what they do than I will ever be. So I am convinced that we will survive this storm. Yes, we are realistic but not hesitant or fearful that it can go wrong.”
Kirsten de Bruijn, WestJet Cargo
Has the bookings started for the cargo flights?
Yeah, we had the bookings open on the first of April. So then we thought, April Fool's Day, maybe it's not so good to communicate, because they might think it is a joke. So we actually have been open since the first of April. But we put it on our social media on April 3. And we got our first booking from Vancouver on the freighter.
Tell us about the timeline for the fourth freighter to be commercially deployed by the end of this year?
It is going to be a little bit earlier. So, as it looks now, it should be ready somewhere mid-June. So fingers crossed; hopefully by the summertime, we should have that too in the air.
Were you surprised by the inordinate delay in getting your aircraft (B737-800BCF) certified by Transport Canada?
Very fairly so. Yes, we did not anticipate the length of certification. Obviously, we had announced a freighter start before. We take the certification very seriously. It is obviously high on the safety agenda of the WestJet Group and of the regulator. We've done our due diligence very well. Happy that it's over now. But yeah, we didn't anticipate the lengthy certification. But again, I am not saying that it wasn't necessary to make sure that all the boxes were ticked in order to have a safe and sound operation.
Tell us the thrill you had getting a rich and resourceful team and building them to the launch of a start-up cargo airline?
It is actually a very funny journey. Throughout my career I've built up relationships and people that I've worked with or that have worked for me in the past. And you know, landing in the WestJet Cargo organisation, I knew quite rapidly which type of competencies that I needed in order to make sure that we were right set from the beginning. Now, immigrating people is not the quickest process. So I had two options. Do I target the best people and be patient or just do the work myself until I get the people here in Canada. I was very lucky that the immigration processes went very smoothly. I tried to prep everybody for what it was to come from global airlines into a start-up. If you ask anybody in my team, who joined my team from abroad, they will tell you that they never would have expected it but they are all super excited and learning a lot. Really going into the nitty gritty of a start-up airline. And I must say, I see mostly smiles around my office here.
Talk to us about the level of confidence that you have to prove your naysayers wrong and remain a strong and reliable cargo carrier for Canada and perhaps for North America?
In order to be a reliable airline, we have to be a little bit careful with the start-up cargo airline. I am new to the 737 aircraft and actually Canada is new to the BCF and the operation thereof. So the approach that we took at WestJet Cargo is to make sure that we gradually start the operation and always have a spare plane on the ground. It's not the most cost effective way. So if you ask some other people they might say that we may be leaving opportunities by parking a plane on the ground. But what is required and what we need to do is to be on time and be reliable. As far disrupting the market, if not on the globe, I am guaranteed that I have the best team in the industry in North America. We are aiming for best customer service, best digital solutions and easy to do business with. And in the end, we're also a fun airline. We are fun to do business with. We are quick and agile. We have that as our main selling point.
Does the current market condition bother you and do you think that your launch is happening at a time when there is a very strong headwind?
Yes, launching a year ago would have given me and my team a little bit of less anxiety than what we have today. We completely realise that it's a competitive landscape that we are starting in. The market is normalising, and let us not say that it is going down. It was going to happen at some point. What I always say is that air cargo is cyclical. There are times when the demand is low and you need the street fighting attitude. And then there are times when the demand is great and you can pick and choose your cargo. We are not in that market now. We are here to be the street fighters of Canada. I've surrounded myself with people that are better at what they do than I will ever be. So I am convinced that we will survive this storm. We're realistic but not hesitant or fearful that that it can go wrong.
How integrated is WestJet Cargo’s strategy with the growing long-haul wide-body (B-787s) belly cargo capacity and how do you plan to feed international cargo into Calgary, the base for the WestJet’s global flights?
So with the Go-West strategy of the passenger operation, and it completely made sense for the strategy of WestJet passenger business of course, cargo was a little bit sad to see the Toronto flights go on the Dreamliner. We all know that Calgary is not the biggest cargo hub so what we've done is we have tailored the freighter schedule in a way that it can tap into point to point domestic traffic. But it also assists in optimising the wide body belly, so we have increased the Calgary stops on the freighters. So initially when we were network optimizing before we had to Go-West strategy, our network looked a little bit different. We have a lot of European destinations that we are launching and obviously all of that cargo does not end in Calgary, but some of it will. We do have quite a big perishable market here in Calgary but of course, the bigger cargo markets are more in Vancouver and in Toronto. So we have made sure that the connecting times are super attractive. So the point to point is still very attractive to sell for the wide body.
Very early on you had signed up with SmartKargo to build a very comprehensive digital platform for your digital cargo transformation strategy; is the platform ready and how satisfied are you with your digital transformation plans for WestJet Cargo?
Yes, the platform is ready. All of the aircraft types are bookable. We do have more ambitious plans ahead for digitisation, when it comes to the user experience on the website, to the ease of booking. We had a deadline to meet. But we have made some good steps. But to be honest, I am a competitive person in nature. So I am not yet done or satisfied with what we have become. We have larger plans connecting to third party platforms this year. We are starting our second digitisation business transformation case as we speak. We are focusing on the freighters now. We will start with that once we have the operation up and running. But you have more to see of WestJet Cargo in 2023 for sure. We are not done yet. It's just the start.