Unions at Japan Airlines Corp. are taking the opportunity of JAL being reprimanded by the government over recent safety shortcomings to fault the policies of management, especially its drastic cost-reduction efforts.

The unions attributed the mishaps in part to management’s emphasis on profit and cost cuts they say come at the sacrifice of necessary expenses for safe operations.

Such views, however, have been dismissed by aviation industry officials and experts. Linking safety problems to cost cuts is short-sighted, and it is inevitable for JAL, the nation’s largest airline, to bring down its high personnel costs to survive competition, the experts reckoned.

“What differentiates the airline industry from other businesses is that the priority (should not be) to seek profits,” but instead to ensure safety, Taeko Uchida, chairwoman of the Japan Federation of Aviation Workers’ Unions (Kokuren), told a news conference in late March.

Uchida made the statement after JAL was reprimanded by the transport ministry for recent safety mishaps, which included a JAL jetliner starting its takeoff roll at an airport in Hokkaido in January before receiving clearance from the control tower.

“JAL should take the opportunity of the reprimand to drastically review its profit-oriented management policy, including the fiscal 2005-2007 business plan containing personnel reductions,” she said.

Kokuren comprises 53 aviation unions, including 21 from JAL and its affiliates. Uchida is a member of the Japan Airline’s Cabin Attendants’ Union.

In early March, JAL unveiled a three-year business plan that featured slashing 1,500 ground-personnel jobs, which comes on top of a 4,500-worker reduction announced a year ago, from its 43,800-strong ground staff.

JAL, a holding company of Japan Airlines International Co. and Japan Airlines Domestic Co., said it needs to build a cost structure that can cope with high fuel prices and intensifying competition in the industry. It estimates the personnel cuts would save the carrier 34.5 billion yen in fiscal 2007.

Cutting such a large number of jobs while keeping its fleet intact will inevitably affect operational safety, the unions argued.

“I think (the mishaps) came as a result of JAL management’s repeated disregard of appeals by its workers,” said Yasuhiko Takeda, vice chairman of the JAL Flight Crew Union.

According to the unions, the carrier stopped hiring its own mechanics in 1994 and instead started outsourcing much of the work. At the same time, the maintenance section was spun off into separate firms with wage levels half those of the parent company.

Kokuren also noted that a reduction in spare parts stocks has led to a constant shortage. JAL planes are sometimes flown without undergoing necessary repairs, the federation said.

JAL cabin attendant union member Fukuko Torikai said her colleagues are under pressure from management to promote in-flight sales and mileage cards when they should be making safety checks.

Industry officials and experts, however, figure linking cost reductions to safety problems is nonsense.

“Every airline in the world is trying to slash (its) workforce and reduce costs” to survive the harsh business environment, said Anthony Concil, an official at the International Air Transport Association.

JAL’s main domestic rival, All Nippon Airways Co., reduced operating costs by 30 billion yen, including 20 billion yen on personnel, in the first two years of its three-year streamlining program through 2005. The program will cut ANA’s workforce of 12,800 by 1,200. Like JAL, ANA has gradually outsourced its aircraft maintenance.

As proof that cost-reductions do not necessarily lead to safety failures, Concil noted that 2004 was the safest year for the aviation industry in recent memory despite financial difficulties, including high fuel prices that slashed the profits of IATA member airlines by $4.8 billion.

According to the IATA, 1.8 billion people flew safely in 2004, while the industry saw 428 fatalities in commercial aircraft accidents, which is almost the same level marked in 1945, when the industry carried only 9 million passengers.

Aviation analyst Kazuki Sugiura believes JAL, whose personnel costs had been too high in the past, should continue to streamline its business to increase competitiveness.

“The unions say their working conditions have worsened, but their wage levels have been too high and JAL is only trying to bring that level down to normal,” Sugiura claimed.

Yasuhiro Yamada, an official at the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry’s Civil Aviation Bureau, said stocking fewer spare parts and outsourcing maintenance do not necessarily pose an operational safety threat.

Government safety standards cover the frequency of when parts must be replaced as well as how maintenance is handled by subcontractors, Yamada said, noting it is possible to cut costs without violating safety rules.

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