The commuter airline business in Japan has expanded in the past few years, with more people traveling from city to city on planes that carry around 100 passengers or less.

According to the Japan Aeronautic Association, there were 1.75 million passengers on commuter flights in fiscal 2001, a 3.7-fold leap from the 474,000 of five years before.

Commuter airlines are benefiting from a better business environment, which has been helped by approval to land at Narita, the main international airport for Tokyo.

They are also making use of routes that major airlines have withdrawn from because they were unprofitable.

An official at the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry called the growth “a sign of a new era for regional airlines.”

There are currently 13 companies that operate commuter flights.

Oriental Air Bridge Co. started flying between Nagasaki and Kagoshima after the withdrawal of Air Nippon Co., a subsidiary of All Nippon Airways, while J-Air Corp., a Japan Airlines group firm, started services between Sapporo and Fukushima after JAL withdrew.

Also, with the opening last April of a temporary second, shorter runway at Narita airport, three carriers are now operating flights that connect to international flights.

The industry is also benefiting from government approval of code-sharing among domestic airlines, a move that has led commuter airlines to engage in joint operations with the bigger carriers and provided a boost in profitability.

One example is the joint operations between commuter flight operator Fair Inc. and ANA. On flights the two companies operate between Narita and Itami airport in Hyogo Prefecture, the occupancy rate was 94 percent in the six-month period through August.

The strength of commuter airlines is that unlike the bigger airlines, they can change the type of planes and number of flights in line with demand. This flexibility makes it easier for them to make money on local routes where there are relatively few passengers.

An official at the Japan Aeronautic Association said moves by smaller airlines to take over routes previously held by major airlines are likely to continue.

“With the increasingly fierce competition in the airline industry, we will probably keep seeing cases of routes being taken over by different airlines,” the official said.

However, Hideki Tanemura, manager at the Regional Aviation Promotion Organization, said the commuter flight industry is not without its obstacles.

He said Tokyo’s Haneda airport does not allow smaller airplanes to land there on the grounds that their passenger capacity is not economically efficient.

“We are continuing to apply for departure and arrival slots, but Haneda airport hasn’t changed its stance of giving priority to large airplanes,” Tanemura said. “We think that instead of placing importance on economic efficiency, it’s important to secure a proper network to link places all over.”

He said commuter airlines also need to improve their weak financial standing.

“Many companies started out by operating flights for people living on islands. And given the restrictions on where they can fly, only a few can be said to be doing fairly well,” Tanemura said.

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