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A grounded WestJet plane sits on the tarmac at Toronto Pearson International Airport, on April 27.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

WestJet Airlines Ltd. is launching a cargo business in a bid to capitalize on rising demand for air freight amid prolonged weakness in passenger travel.

The Calgary-based airline said its cargo-only operation will begin flying in the second quarter of 2022 with four converted Boeing 737-800 aircraft.

WestJet has seen demand for air freight services rise 40 per cent to 50 per cent during the pandemic, said Charles Duncan, the carrier’s executive vice-president of cargo and the president of discount airline Swoop.

WestJet waited almost a year before announcing the business in order to be sure the demand would last, he said by phone on Wednesday. Initially, the airline flew a lot of personal protection equipment and other pandemic gear, but that business has grown to include consumer e-commerce purchases, seafood and other high-value and perishable goods that require fast delivery times – all amid a shortage of shipping capacity by way of ships, trucks and trains and in the bellies of passenger jets.

“We have seen strength in cargo as demand for our guest travel business has fallen,” Mr. Duncan said. “This does not replace that. Our bread and butter is flying guests where they want to go domestically and all over the world. This is an important complement to that.”

The first of the 737-800s is slated for delivery in February by Boeing, which converts second-hand passenger planes to cargo service by removing the seats, strengthening the floor and adding larger doors. The global supply of converted air freighters is tight owing to demand from many of the world’s airlines, which are also looking to replace lost passenger revenue.

The International Air Transport Association, an industry group, said air cargo volumes in March of 2021 exceeded the record set in 2019. But because the majority of air cargo moves in the holds of passenger planes, many of which are idle because of the pandemic, overall capacity is down.

Air cargo represents 35 per cent of the world’s trade by dollar value but less than 1 per cent of volume, the IATA said.

“Everybody’s getting into the cargo market,” said John Gradek, who teaches aviation leadership at McGill University. “There is demand right now.”

He said the lure of the market is short-term – that higher cargo prices and demand will ease as capacity returns. “You can make money now because rates are so high … but as more and more passenger aircraft come back, you’ll get more belly space and rates will come down.”

WestJet’s passenger fleet includes the 737-800, so the airline will not have to retrain its pilots or hire new ones to fly the freighters, Mr. Duncan said.

The planes can carry 25,000 kilograms of goods and have a range of 4,800 kilometres. The narrow-body 737 can land at smaller airports, reaching much of the domestic market. U.S. routes might be added later, Mr. Duncan said.

Air Canada, WestJet’s larger rival, last year said it would transform as many as seven of its Boeing 767 planes to freighters, two of which will begin flying out of Toronto this fall. On June 14, Air Canada announced destinations for its cargo flights, including Halifax, Frankfurt and Mexico City.

Since March, 2020, it has flown more than 9,000 all-cargo flights in passenger jets by removing the seats or making other modifications.

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