Raw Japan

Slices of Japanese business, politics and life

JAL – What a feeling!

January 30, 2009

At Tokyo’s Haneda Airport today, I watched a bio-fuelled JAL aircraft find loft in a sign of 21st Century change.

But for executives of Japan’s flag carrier, Asia’s largest, the exercise was also a brief diversion from the terrestrial woes of the world financial crisis.

Japan Airlines, like its international air rivals, has surplus routes, seats and staff amid the worst times for the industry since September 2001.

A national airline once deemed among Japan’s best employers is now also trying to shed capacity.

This is neither rare nor exceptionally difficult if you’re world No.1 airline Delta Air Lines or other carriers accustomed to mergers, union fights or cut-throat competition.

JAL

But for JAL, once portrayed as a literal passport to vocational and personal success with Hanae Mori-designed uniforms, particularly in TV melodramas over the last three decades, to shed people, like its corporate brethren in Japan’s auto industry, is a relatively untravelled route.

When first coming to Japan, I enjoyed reruns of the 1980s TV series “Stewardess Monogatari“, featuring the travails of wanna-be, Matsumoto Chiaki, whose rise from personal hardship to JAL stew offered lessons in perserverance, duty and — of course — air romance.

Each episode would end with the Japanese cover version of Irene Cara’s “Flashdance…What a Feeling.”

This pre-deregulation bearing reflected the relative turbulent-free skies of dedicated customers, limited competition and manageable, if occasionally volatile, energy costs.

But like the steelworker of “Flashdance”, most global airline staff since have also faced substantial “repurposing”, cuts in salaries and benefits, or job loss.  

JAL is now offering month-long, voluntary, non-paid ”refeshment” leave to 16,000 attendants, pilots and ground workers, while overall it looks to pare 4,300 jobs by the end of March through attrition, early retirement and transfers, trimming over $550 million a year in personnel costs.

The launch of emergency cost-cut measures also include suspending education and training progams for JAL pilots and flight attendants, a frequent setting for “Stewardess Monogatari”.

So, would the 40-something Matsumoto-san still fly for JAL or be one of those relegated to syndicated TV’s permanent ground crew?

Some clues may come from an updated JAL business plan in February, although recent passenger loads below 70 percent capacity – the break-even tarmac – point towards a year in the red, regardless of how green the airline becomes.

At a New Year’s Party, CEO Haruka Nishimatsu told me the oil price tumble had helped JAL, but international passenger numbers have been hit hard and a very tough 2009 lied ahead.

Nishimatsu, recently profiled by TV network CBS as a different kind of leader, said a stronger yen may encourage more Japanese to go overseas, but gaining business class travellers would be key as the carrier ends or cuts service on a number of Japanese and overseas routes.

Adding literal fuel to the fire this week, the Shukan Gendai magazine speculated that JAL and rival All Nippon Airways may merge, offering scenarios that would put both airlines in one hangar.

ANA announced today a shift in year forecast from recurring profit to loss and JAL may join suit next week.

Putting aside anti-trust issues and the carriers’ competitive history, perhaps along with asking if Matsuomoto-san would still be flying in 2009, a future question may be what uniform she would wear.

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