A sharp rise in cargo flights serving Canada’s capital this summer highlights an important but often overlooked part of the Ottawa International Airport’s operations that enables local businesses to quickly reach customers in other markets.
Air freight is typically handled either on dedicated cargo flights operated by carriers such as FedEx, Cargojet and Canadian North or in the belly of passenger aircraft, below the cabin, flown by the likes of Air Canada and WestJet.
With many of those passenger flights temporarily suspended, dedicated cargo flights at the Ottawa International Airport jumped 18 per cent year-over-year in July to 138 takeoffs and landings. The demand for dedicated cargo flights climbed as carriers replaced lost capacity aboard passenger aircraft and responded to growing demand for rush deliveries, ranging from medical equipment to everyday e-commerce purchases.
Some 31,375 metric tonnes of cargo moved through YOW in 2019, a two per cent increase over the previous year. Significantly, nearly two-thirds of that cargo was outbound – products sold by local businesses to customers in other markets.
This is driven in part by YOW’s key role in the eastern Arctic supply chain.
“Everything from axle grease to zucchini can be sourced locally for air freight to the north,” says Mark Laroche, the president and CEO of the Ottawa International Airport Authority. “This is positive for the local economy, particularly for producers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers in Ottawa-Gatineau.”
However, Laroche cautions that Ottawa’s current role as a supplier to the north should not be taken for granted.
Preserving Ottawa’s advantage
Looking at a map of our country could be somewhat misleading and could give us the impression that Ottawa is in closer proximity to Iqaluit relative to other Canadian cities. But other Canadian airports – which would welcome additional cargo business to the north – are almost equally close.
For example, a Cargojet Boeing 767 freighter takes approximately 2.5 hours to fly from YOW to Iqaluit. That same aircraft would only require an additional 12 minutes to reach Nunavut’s capital from Winnipeg and another 20 minutes from Hamilton. The flight from Quebec City to Iqaluit is actually 15 minutes shorter than from Ottawa.
Given that aircraft are mobile assets and can be redeployed as demand and supply chains evolve, it is essential that Ottawa maintains its competitive position by, for example, maintaining efficient road access to the airport.
“Time is critical in cargo operations,” Laroche says.
It’s equally essential that limits on the type of development that can occur close to the airport are adhered to by all. The purpose of the airport’s “operating influence zone” is to avoid building homes and other structures in areas where people could be bothered by the sound of planes taking off or landing during all hours – an avoidable conflict that can lead to curfews and other restrictions.
“The airport needs to continue to remain open to cargo,” Laroche says. “That is why limiting ‘noise-sensitive’ development in the Airport Operating Influence Zone (AOIZ), as described in the City’s Official Plan and Comprehensive Zoning By-law, is so important.”
Despite the inherent volatility in the air freight industry, the sector’s outlook in Ottawa is promising.
The merger of Canadian North and First Air is good news for the National Capital Region, as the Arctic-focused carrier has indicated that it will maintain its headquarters in Ottawa.
Elsewhere, FedEx has an aircraft dedicated to its busy Ottawa operations, and Air Canada recently upgraded its YOW cargo facilities.
Meanwhile, changing consumer trends and the growth of e-commerce is creating expectations for quick and timely deliveries, putting more pressure on air freight.
“We’re paying close attention to ensure that YOW is prepared for future cargo growth. Our airfield is ready, and we have land available for facility expansion. We need to continue working with the City of Ottawa to ensure that essential airport roadway infrastructure is equipped as well,” Laroche says.