WestJet Cargo: Overcoming Challenges and Pioneering New Horizons
“While we have been concentrating more on the North American side, we do see opportunities to explore further international markets…WestJet Cargo aims to be easy to do business with, aligning with its culture of simplicity and hassle-free interactions. We are investing in connecting to third-party platforms and focusing on revenue management.” – Kirsten de Bruijn, Executive Vice President Cargo, WestJet Cargo
By Mohammed Irshad
WestJet Cargo, a subsidiary of Canada’s second largest carrier, WestJet Airlines, which operates more than 777 flights per day, continues to break barriers and initiate innovative solutions in the air cargo industry.
A shining beacon of ingenuity and excellence, WestJet Cargo is once more pioneering new horizons through the leadership of Kirsten de Bruijn, the airline’s Executive Vice President for Cargo.
In this exclusive interview with Air Cargo Update, De Bruijn discusses WestJet Cargo’s remarkable journey of adapting and innovating in the face of numerous industry challenges and how it’s reshaping its future with a team of industry-leading experts she handpicked for the job.
As the industry undergoes significant transformations, WestJet Cargo remains at the forefront, rewriting the rules and redefining what it means to be a cargo powerhouse. With an unwavering commitment to customer satisfaction and a deep understanding of the intricate nuances of air cargo, De Bruijn and her dedicated team orchestrate a symphony of efficiency and reliability. As they navigate the vibrant air cargo landscape of North America, the cargo airline boldly carves a path of innovation and excellence, consistently setting new industry standards.
WestJet’s ingenious strategies to carve its future, manage talent shortages and foster a team of industry-leading experts are working in its favor. The result is a cohesive, diverse, and motivated group of cargo experts united in their mission to push WestJet to new heights.
Challenges Turned Opportunities: A Positive Perspective
“We view the challenges in a positive light,” De Bruijn shares. “Although we faced a downward market when we started, it has pushed us to be more vigilant and perform better than ever before.” She highlights how they utilized the main deck capacity of their three Boeing 787s, which was a significant addition to their existing belly cargo operations. “The certification process, though longer than expected, provided us with an opportunity to excel.”
“Our brand has always been well-liked and known for its positive and responsive culture,” De Bruijn explains. She emphasizes WestJet’s unique identity that resonates with customers. “Our competitors primarily operate larger aircraft such as Boeing 767 freighters and Boeing 747s with capacities of 35 tons or more,” De Bruijn says. “However, there are certain routes and smaller airports where operating such large aircraft becomes challenging or inefficient. In those cases, our more agile fleet is better suited to provide custom solutions to customers.”
“The entire year has been a journey of learning and discovery,” De Bruijn reflects. She highlights the comprehensive understanding she gained across various aspects of the business. “One positive outcome of this experience is that the aircraft has have proven to be much more reliable than expected,” she said, emphasizing their plans to install advanced communication systems to improve operational efficiency and expand their reach.
Remarkably, despite being parked for nearly a year, WestJet Cargo’s fleet of aircraft had shown excellent performance.
De Bruijn said the company plans to expand to other global markets, saying, “While we have been concentrating more on the North American side, we do see opportunities to explore further international markets.” She pointed out perishable goods as a promising vertical with their strong presence in passenger lanes.
Carrying pets is another market they want to focus on. “Another interesting vertical for us is the pet industry,” she adds, highlighting the unique aspects of the Canadian air cargo market and their focus on understanding and serving its diverse landscape.
In this captivating chapter of WestJet’s cargo symphony, challenges are transformed into opportunities, setting it apart with its unique strengths, unveiling new dimensions through continuous learning, and exploring international markets for diversified revenue streams.
The journey towards Cargo Excellence
De Bruijn explains the need for freighters, stating, “The cargo business operates differently from utilizing belly space alone.” She highlights the importance of optimizing cargo flow and maximizing both belly space and freighter capacity. “By introducing freighters, we have the capacity to handle everything and also optimize our wide-body aircraft operations to meet diverse cargo needs,” she said. She underscores the rising demand for e-commerce and the vast potential in the Canadian market.
“I consider myself fortunate in this regard,” De Bruijn explains, “Utilizing this knowledge, I actively pursued the specific individuals I knew would be a perfect fit for our team.” She proudly shares that they currently have no vacancies and adds, “I hand-selected each member of my management team, which is a first for me.”
De Bruijn underlines, “We are lucky to have a highly motivated and driven group of cargo experts from diverse backgrounds. In my opinion, our team ranks among the best in North America, if not the world.”
Highlighting WestJet’s progress in digitalization, De Bruijn shared, “WestJet has made significant strides in digitalization, including the implementation of the smart cargo system.”
WestJet is actively working on improving its digital platform, aiming for a 10-20% increase in online bookings this year. “WestJet aims to be easy to do business with, aligning with its culture of simplicity and hassle-free interactions. We are investing in connecting to third-party platforms and focusing on revenue management,” De Bruijn explains and emphasizes their commitment to operational efficiency and customer service through track and trace initiatives and sales CRM dashboards.
De Bruijn acknowledges the need for further advancements in digitalization, stating, “Tthe cargo industry as a whole still has a long way to go,” and affirms their dedication to ongoing efforts until December 2024.
With a clear vision and unwavering dedication, De Bruijn’s leadership propels WestJet’s cargo operations toward a brighter future. Through the adoption of freighters, careful selection of skilled professionals, and a strong focus on digitalization, WestJet Cargo is actively influencing the industry and redefining the standards for success in the cargo sector. The stage is set for continued success as optimized operations, exceptional team members, and streamlined processes drive WestJet Cargo forward.
Change, Sustainability, and Integration
Regarding change management during the implementation of Smart Cargo, De Bruijn acknowledges the challenges faced and states, “People tend to resist change and often perceive the previous system as better.” She explains, “To address this, the company had change management advocates who were confident in the decision and provided motivational support.”
De Bruijn shares that personalized one-on-one training sessions were conducted with each customer to ensure a smooth transition.
She recalls, “Feedback from customers was collected and used to drive continuous improvement in the system.” De Bruijn highlights their commitment to customer service, stating, “The company invested in ramping up its contact center to provide support during the transition.”
She proudly mentions their company personally training at least 500 customers and expresses their dedication to ongoing improvements based on customer feedback. De Bruijn acknowledges that digitalization in the cargo industry still has a long way to go and emphasizes WestJet Cargo’s commitment to investing in necessary advancements.
De Bruijn stressed the importance of sustainability initiatives: “Our sustainability initiatives at WestJet are an important focus for us.” She explains their commitment to extending these initiatives to cargo operations and mentions Angela, the leader of their dedicated sustainability team, who oversees environmental, social, and governance factors.
De Bruijn states that they have set goals to become carbon neutral and have conducted a Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) flight on the passenger side. She acknowledges the limitations in SAF availability in certain locations. She emphasizes their priority of reducing plastics and harmful materials, saying, “We are actively working with our ground handlers and exploring different initiatives to achieve that.”
De Bruijn also shares insights on integrating WestJet’s culture into newly acquired airlines, “It’s been a learning curve for us,” she said, explaining the challenges they faced due to the dynamic nature of cargo operations compared to stable passenger operations. The company’s dedicated team, however, is managing full freighter operations and initiated efforts in aligning the organization with cargo behavior.
De Bruijn expresses their focus on change management, motivation, and regular communication to integrate their culture. “We conduct roadshows, personally engage with duty managers, and keep our stakeholders close to ensure understanding and appreciation for the dynamic nature of cargo operations,” she said reflecting on the interesting journey they have embarked upon so far.
When asked about WestJet Cargo’s future in terms of freighters and revenue percentage over the next five years, De Bruijn acknowledges the challenge of providing a specific answer at this point. She mentions that they currently have four freighters but states, “It’s challenging to determine the exact number of freighters we will have in the future,” she said, noting their focus on building up their network and optimizing connectivity through their “go west” strategy and the integration of Sunwing Airlines which WestJet Airlines acquired in May 2023.
Highlighting the importance of understanding their cargo footprint and market variables in shaping their cargo operations, De Bruijn says, “By the end of the year, I will present a proposal outlining the focus for the next five years, including considerations such as capacity, freighter types, and routes.”
De Bruijn acknowledges that it’s still early to provide a concrete plan but expresses her willingness to discuss this in greater detail in the coming months. Her leadership and commitment to excellence are evident throughout her responses, showcasing WestJet’s determination to thrive in the ever-evolving cargo industry.
Wiremind and WestJet Cargo explore capacity forecasting
With WestJet Cargo’s recent renewal of its SKYPALLET contract with Wiremind, the decision was made to take the digital collaboration further and explore capacity forecasting improvements. A Proof of Concept (PoC) was initiated in April 2023 and will run for the next few months with a final enhancement expected in the second half of this year.
An Artificial Intelligence-driven capacity forecasting mechanism is already part of Wiremind’s optimization solution, CARGOSTACK Optimiser. Through a combination of advanced Machine Learning models and algorithms, Wiremind’s solution provides a more accurate estimate of the remaining cargo capacity for sale, after factoring in non-cargo items such as passenger baggage, fuel and other capacity consuming items. It can provide this capacity estimate in payload, volume and positional terms depending on the profile of the flight or the aircraft type operated.
“We understand that a key pain point for cargo teams at passenger-heavy airlines is determining how much cargo capacity they will be able to sell. This is why we developed our capacity forecasting solution to provide more accurate recommendations which cargo sales teams can trust,” states Nathanaël de Tarade, Chief Executive Officer of Wiremind Cargo. “We have been accompanying WestJet Cargo in its digital transformation since December 2019, when they became a SKYPALLET customer, and we are very excited to take this partnership a step further with this PoC.”
The new capacity forecast solution also complements SKYPALLET by providing a more accurate capacity definition within which SKYPALLET must optimize the flights’ bookings. Further iterations are planned for both solutions to work seamlessly together, such as automatically reconfiguring the aircraft to an optimal layout, to unlock further efficiencies.
Kirsten de Bruijn, Executive Vice President Cargo at WestJet Cargo, has high hopes the airline’s partnership with Wiremind will yield to growth.
“Having experienced the financial benefits and efficiencies that SKYPALLET brings to the cargo business, here at WestJet, where we have already implemented Wiremind’s software into our daily operations for three years, I am more than confident that our joint Proof of Concept will be an incredible success. In the run-up to the flight, there are several variables and factors to consider, making intelligent digital support highly valuable. Given the current pace of change in machine learning and artificial intelligence, we are just at the beginning of the vast opportunities they can bring to the air cargo business. With Wiremind, we have a trusted and innovative SaaS provider that offers flexibility and reliability,” she said.