Pilot shortage, sudden expansion strangling Japan's low-cost airlines

In this March 2012 file photo, a Peach Aviation jet takes off from Kansai International Airport. (Mainichi)
In this March 2012 file photo, a Peach Aviation jet takes off from Kansai International Airport. (Mainichi)

Operations at Japan's three major low-cost airlines -- Peach Aviation, Vanilla Air and Jetstar Japan -- has slipped slowly into chaos, as an apparent lack of pilots has forced flight after flight to be canceled.

Behind the rise of the low-cost carriers and their personnel troubles is the explosion in demand for air travel. Minister of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Akihiro Ota -- who oversees air travel in Japan -- has called the mass flight cancellations and their impact on passengers "regrettable" and indicated the ministry will be watching to see how the budget carriers will improve matters. However, the shortage of pilots is an industry-wide structural problem, and there are worries that it will result in continued cancellations.

Peach Aviation and Vanilla Air, both under the All Nippon Airways (ANA) umbrella, have announced a long series of cancellations due to the pilot shortage, exacerbated by pilots calling in sick or retiring. Peach alone has announced the cancellation of 2,128 domestic and international flights scheduled for May through October this year. Vanilla has canceled 154 flights on its June schedule. Meanwhile Jetstar Japan -- in which Japan Airlines (JAL) owns a controlling stake -- has postponed a June 3 schedule expansion due to aircraft maintenance system delays.

The budget carrier business model is based on stripping down costs including personnel and aircraft numbers to the absolute bare minimum to keep ticket prices cheap. The market has proven more than receptive, with low-cost airlines going from a 0.9 percent share of domestic air travel in March 2012, to a 7.5 percent share in March this year.

The sudden expansion in the number of flights and routes has, however, put severe strains on the three airlines, and helped lead to the current pilot shortage. In Europe and North America, gradual expansion of the low-cost sector in the 1970s and '80s led to more pilots. In Japan, however, the number of pilots was actually restricted for many years. When low-cost airlines really took off in this country in 2012, they initially managed to dodge this systematic personnel shortage by hiring pilots cast off by JAL, which had gone through a restructuring process after filing for bankruptcy in January 2010. JAL's resurgence, however, coincided with the expansion of the low-cost market, and a chronic pilot shortage set in.

The shortage is made worse by the fact that the Airbus A320 is the mainstay of the low-cost carriers' fleets. Pilot certification is based on aircraft type and, as the ANA and JAL fleets are made up mostly of Boeing planes, there are relatively few Japanese pilots licensed to fly the A320. As such, many pilots looking to work for of a budget carrier must undergo months of training before they can get behind the controls of an Airbus. Some pilots also suddenly quit or retire from the airlines, making it difficult for them to boost pilot numbers quickly.

In June this year, Spring Airlines Japan -- backed by the Chinese budget carrier Spring Airlines and other investors -- will launch three domestic Japanese routes out of Narita International Airport near Tokyo. With demand for domestic air travel growing, the transport ministry believes the low-cost carrier share of the market will also expand. Meanwhile, the carriers themselves are working with their big Japanese parents to train new pilots as fast as possible.

May 23, 2014(Mainichi Japan)