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With the JR Tokaido Shinkansen Line now stopping at Shinagawa, airlines are bracing for cutthroat competition with the speedy rail service between Tokyo and Osaka.

The new stop will definitely be handier for travelers transferring to local trains in southwestern Tokyo, but many experts predict the increased frequency and new fare cuts for Nozomi bullet trains — the fastest service offered by Central Japan Railway Co. (JR Tokai) between the two cities — will pose the greatest threat to domestic air carriers.

“The shinkansen’s existence has always been a threat to airlines,” said Ikuo Kojima, an economic journalist well-versed in transportation issues.

He said that in the past, some air routes connecting Tokyo and other cities have been axed when the bullet-train network has expanded.

JR Tokai President Yoshiyuki Kasai has repeatedly denied any intention of fighting for a greater share of travelers — despite the fact that many air passengers transfer at Shinagawa to the Keikyu Line to get to Haneda airport, the capital’s main domestic air hub.

JR Tokai launched the Shinagawa project in 1989 based on expectations that the number of bullet-train riders would continue to increase. But the number has remained at the roughly 130 million level since 1990 after surging from 117 million the year before.

Meanwhile, some 4.96 million people flew between Tokyo and Osaka in fiscal 2001, up from 3.88 million in fiscal 1992.

At present, about 70 percent of people who use public transportation to travel between Tokyo and Osaka use the railway, with the ratio rising to 80 percent between Tokyo and the greater Kansai area.

Against this backdrop, airline officials fear that the Shinagawa stop will create a “kill-or-be-killed” situation and are taking steps to keep travelers from switching to rails.

To challenge JR Tokai’s cheaper Nozomi fares, All Nippon Airways Co. and Japan Airlines System Corp. have recently cut shuttle fares between Tokyo and Osaka by 800 yen to 13,700 yen one way, and introduced bargain fares on flights from Tokyo to Osaka at rock-bottom prices starting at 10,100 yen.

“We want to use this opportunity to encourage businesspeople to use airlines, for many companies currently do not allow their employees to ride the Nozomi or fly on a business trip,” said ANA President Yoji Ohashi. To this end, Ohashi said he has recently started visiting companies to encourage them to let their workers fly.

“We have decided to act fast so as not to lose our customers,” a JAL spokesman said. “Should that happen, it would be hard to get them to use our services again.”

JAL currently operates 22 return flights between Tokyo and Osaka daily, while ANA operates 19. ANA plans to add another return flight in November to compete with the Tokaido Shinkansen service.

But Kojima said airlines must do more than lower fares; they should offer better services and incentives, such as bonus mileage points and hotel discounts.

“A shift will certainly occur among travelers from airlines to the shinkansen,” Kojima said. “Airlines must brace themselves for intensified competition by further streamlining their operations, including personnel expenses.”

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