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Back in the saddle: Air Canada relaunches equine service

New freighters, Toronto horse ‘barn’ open door for specialized cargo product

Ireland's Denis Lynch on Brooklyn Heights competes to win the Grand Prix horse jumping competition at Rome's horse show, May 29, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

MIAMI — Air Canada is in the horse transportation business again. It’s a move made possible by the introduction nearly a year ago of widebody freighters to the passenger fleet.

Air Canada Cargo announced last month the start of an equine transportation service using specially designed stalls that can carry up to three animals. The new service builds on a legacy of experience gained during an earlier era when the airline operated all-cargo aircraft and from processing horses for other airlines at a holding area at its Toronto hub.

“We’re not new to this. Now we just get to put the animals back in the air,” said Jason Berry, vice president of cargo, in an interview during The International Air Cargo Association expo in early November. “It wasn’t like we just jumped into this. We took our time with this product, in particular, to make sure we dusted off the cobwebs of our old procedures and that things were right.”

Management has made cargo a strategic imperative after capturing significant cargo revenues during the pandemic and now plans to have a dozen widebody freighters by late 2024, including eight self-owned Boeing 767 passenger jets being converted to carry cargo. Air Canada divested its fleet of cargo jets 25 years ago and got rid of three remaining outsourced freighters during the 2008 financial crisis. The airline recently received its third freighter from an aftermarket manufacturer and expects to deploy it this month.

Air Canada (OTCUS: ACDVF) retained its live animal handling facility for horses at Toronto Pearson International Airport, providing hotel services for other airlines despite the shift to an all-passenger fleet. The “barn” is a stopping-off point where horses can rest, eat, drink and be checked by veterinarians before being loaded on aircraft or into outbound horse trailers. It is located away from the noisy warehouse area to minimize stress for the animals.

Periodic chartering of all-cargo jets from other operators also served as a proving ground for horse transport in recent years, said Berry.

The expansion of the freighter network fits with popular destinations for race and show horses, the cargo chief said. 

Air Canada has added three Boeing 767 converted freighters to its fleet so far. (Photo: Air Canada)

Air Canada Cargo currently flies from Toronto to Miami and destinations in Latin America, as well as to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and onward to Germany, Spain and Turkey multiple times per week. New service to Dallas, Atlanta and Bogota, Colombia, will commence with the addition of the third 767 freighter. 

“We don’t have to be everything to everyone on day one,” Berry said. “But we did want to get it [equine product] out there” and grow as more destinations come on line. Potential growth areas include Calgary, which handles many horse shipments from ranches in Alberta. 

Berry said freighters can be configured for a full horse charter with 12 stalls or with one stall combined with traditional cargo containers. 

The freighters feature a small seating area for professional grooms accompanying the horses. The attendants, who are hired by third-party freight brokers, attend to the animals during flight, check their temperature and make sure they are comfortable, fed and hydrated. 

Berry said Air Canada had to train grooms to make sure they were familiar with its aircraft and special procedures before it could launch the equine service. 

The horse containers used by Air Canada are manufactured by VVR and provided by Zurich-based Unilode Aviation Solutions.

Intradaco Global, an air charter specialist for equine and livestock transport, earlier this year opened an office in Toronto. 

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]