Lifted by e-commerce demand, cargo-only flights emerged as a lifeline for carriers during the pandemic when commercial traffic slumped. Half of air cargo normally travels in the belly of passenger jets.
While North American airlines are reducing all-cargo flights as passenger traffic rebounds, that shift is more gradual in Canada due to a slower easing of travel restrictions.
Cargo remains important for Canada's largest carrier, accounting for 43 per cent of second-quarter revenue, even as it restores passenger flights, a company executive told Reuters.
'We (cargo) were a single-digit piece of the business before Covid. We hope to be a bigger part of that in the future,' Jason Berry, Air Canada's vice president for cargo, said in an interview, without providing a target.
Air Canada's ambition comes as international air cargo volume hit its strongest first-half growth since 2017, airline trade group IATA said. But staffing shortages and space constraints have exacerbated congestion at hubs like Chicago's O'Hare International Airport and at some US ports.
US railroad operator Union Pacific Corp recently warned that bottlenecks at West Coast ports have spread East, impacting some inland terminals, including Chicago.
Air Canada, which trucks cargo arriving at Toronto Pearson International Airport to its facilities in Chicago and New York, could appeal to freight forwarders seeking alternatives like secondary US airports to bypass the congestion, said Brandon Fried, executive director of the Airforwarders Association.
'Many of the airports in the US in particular have ramped up quickly, and with that rapid growth there has been operational challenges. We're seeing congestion, massive lines and wait times to recover product at major gateways,' Mr said.
'We have our own facility in Chicago with our own employees, while a lot of our competitors are suffering because the US has seen such a quick rebound that there is a lot of struggle for manpower down there,' he said.
'With our own facilities we can control our own destiny and effectively bypass much of the disruption. We believe we have a strategic advantage in our Toronto hub, actually all of our hubs: Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.'