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Freighter crew offload goods from an Air Canada 767 craft at Toronto Pearson Airport on Dec 15, 2021.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

The Air Canada Boeing 767 last bore passengers on April 1, 2020, bringing sunseekers home to Toronto from Mexico City as the pandemic took hold.

The 32-year-old plane then flew to Kansas City, and there it sat. Like most of the world’s passenger jets, it was waiting out a crisis that would kill millions of people while sending the airline industry into a financial collapse.

Twenty months later, the 767 is back in the skies, sporting wider doors that fit stacks of cargo and rollers where its seats used to be. Instead of passengers, the aircraft ferries medicine, seafood, online clothing orders and other goods.

COVID-19 has upended the world’s supply chains, closing factories, clogging marine ports and shifting consumer shopping habits to online retailers that offer next-day delivery. At the same time, the pandemic has grounded much of the global fleet of passenger jets, which carried about half of the world’s air cargo.

Demand for air cargo was up by more than 9 per cent in October, compared with precrisis levels, and is expected to stay strong, said Brendan Sullivan, global head of cargo at the International Air Transport Association, which represents most of the world’s airlines. Many shippers, including manufacturers that rely on just-in-time deliveries, have turned to air shipping to avoid costly pandemic-related delays in marine, road and rail transportation.

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Cargojet Inc., Canada’s dominant air freighter company, with 28 aircraft flying 71 daily routes, posted a 17-per-cent rise in sales in the most recent quarter.

Canada’s two big passenger airlines are adding air freighters to their fleets in efforts to profit from the rise in air freight demand, while seat sales remain well below pre-pandemic levels.

Calgary-based WestJet Airlines hopes to receive its first two all-freight Boeing 737-800s by April, with two more to follow. All of them will be former passenger jets, adapted for cargo. One of the planes to be converted is a veteran of WestJet’s passenger service, while the others are second-hand and being refitted by Boeing in Asia.

The 737s are 12 to 16 years old, and each will fly cargo for about 10 years. They will allow WestJet to serve smaller cities and get shipments closer to customers, said Charles Duncan, WestJet’s head of cargo.

“We’re bringing them into service as quickly as we can,” Mr. Duncan said. “I think this is going to be a multiyear phenomenon.”

WestJet has about 20 cargo warehouses at airports across Canada. The carrier saw record cargo volumes in the holds of its passenger planes between July and October.

Open this photo in gallery:

Freighter crew offload goods ( (electronics, shoes and clothing) from an Air Canada 767 craft at Toronto Pearson Airport, that arrived from Frankfurt, Germany on Dec 15, 2021. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail. This 767 was converted into a cargo plane, and a new large door on the port side was made to accommodate cargo loads.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Air Canada is not new to air cargo, but it has been more than a decade since it last flew dedicated freighters. The converted 767 – which made its first flight, to Vancouver from Toronto, on Dec. 9 – is the start of what will be an eight-plane fleet.

The cargo planes will diversify Air Canada’s revenue and open new markets for the carrier, which was previously restricted to delivering to cities passengers fly into.

“With freighters, we’re allowed to chase the high-volume cargo lanes,” said Jason Berry, Air Canada’s vice-president of cargo. For example, there is strong demand for cargo in and out of Asia and Europe’s industrial centres, but seat sales on those routes are weak.

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Since the pandemic began, Air Canada has flown more than 13,000 all-cargo flights using unconverted passenger jets with seats removed. In the third quarter of 2021, the carrier reported that its year-to-date cargo revenue topped $1-billion for the first time. That amount was more than a third of its total sales for the period.

As part of its cargo push, Air Canada doubled its climate-controlled warehouse space in Vancouver, adding a large cooler for perishable goods, such as food and pharmaceuticals.

During the first waves of the pandemic, Air Canada laid off 20,000 people (about half its work force), reduced its available passenger seats by about 80 per cent and lost about $7-billion. “When all that capacity came out of the market, it really shocked the system,” Mr. Berry said. “At the same time, the maritime industry was struggling with container shortages.”

Air Canada’s 767 freighter was pressed into service earlier than planned – it has yet to be painted with the airline’s cargo livery – but it has now settled into its Toronto-to-Frankfurt route after a short period of ferrying supplies to flood-stricken British Columbia.

The plane originally belonged to now-defunct Canadian Airlines, and survived a corporate restructuring before being acquired (with the rest of Canadian Airlines) by Air Canada in 2000.

These days, the 767 finds itself roaring though another crisis: the pandemic that ended its life as a passenger jet and gave it a new one as a cargo plane.

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