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By selling and leasing back passenger jets it bought at a good price, Air Canada adds to earnings and reduces debt.

Matthew Sherwood/The Globe and Mail

Strong demand for the Boeing 787 among the world's airlines has created a profitable sideline for Air Canada – selling some of its 787 aircraft and leasing them back.

Air Canada sold two of its newest planes last year for $351-million and leased them back, recording a $19-million gain on the sale, and it expects to sell and lease back more 787s this year, chief financial officer Michael Rousseau said Wednesday.

"We're selling the plane for market value," Mr. Rousseau said.

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"When we committed to buy these planes from Boeing many years ago, we had negotiated a fairly good price and today's market is slightly higher than what we had negotiated as a cost price from Boeing."

The airline has sold and leased back four or five of the 24 wide-bodied 787s it has received so far and will probably sell about 10 of the 37 it is scheduled to receive in total from Boeing when deliveries end in 2019, he said.

Boeing will begin delivering 737 single-aisle planes to Air Canada later this year. Air Canada has not decided how it will finance the purchase of the smaller planes, but it is likely to follow the same pattern with those that it did with the 787s, Mr. Rousseau said.

The goal is to maintain a fleet that is half owned and half leased. Leasing helps keep debt down. If the market for 787s stays healthy – driven in part by its popularity among airlines, which is demonstrated by a long waiting list – Air Canada could continue to book profits from selling some of the planes and leasing them back.

The 787s, which have a longer range and are more fuel-efficient than the 767s they replaced, are a key part of the turnaround strategy that Air Canada has been working on since Calin Rovinescu took over as chief executive officer in 2009.

"They have incredible range, they open up the world for us and they have the right seat count given the demand," Mr. Rousseau said.

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The airline is expecting similar performance from the 737s.

Costs per available seat mile for the 737s are expected to be 10 per cent lower than the Airbus planes they replace, he said.

The turnaround at Air Canada includes an eight-fold increase in the company's share price since 2010, a healthy pension plan that now has a $1.3-billion surplus instead of a deficit and, by some measures, record financial results.

The airline reported record earnings before interest, taxes, deprecation and aircraft rent in 2016. Final profit reached $876-million, up from $308-million in 2015.

For his part in that recovery, Mr. Rousseau has been named chief financial officer of the year in Canada by Financial Executives International Canada, consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and staffing firm Robert Half.

"His critical role in the development and execution of the strategy that transformed Air Canada led to the strengthening of its finances, significant shareholder value growth and the complete turnaround and stabilization of Air Canada's pension fund," Michael Conway, president of Financial Executives Canada, said in a statement.

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Mr. Rousseau described the turnaround as a team effort and noted that there is still work to do at the airline, including improving the balance sheet and providing a better experience for Air Canada's customers.

The airline's adjusted net debt stood at $7.1-billion at the end of 2016.

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