NARITA, Chiba -- A subsidiary of Japan Airlines (JAL) will end its suitcase repair business that the company has run for some 30 years at the end of March due to plummeting demand and air travelers.
Tokyo-based JAL ABC Inc. has repaired a total of more than 300,000 suitcases near Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture near Tokyo. Suitcase prices have become lower in recent years and demand for repair services has decreased, resulting in declining profitability. In addition, as the number of air travelers has plummeted amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, the number of repairs also dropped to 10% in fiscal 2020 compared to the previous fiscal year, and the company judged that it cannot expect demand to recover anytime soon.
JAL ABC launched a business to deliver travelers' luggage from Narita airport to their home when the facility opened in 1978. The company foresaw a demand for repairs as suitcases were getting damaged at times during transportation, so it launched the repair business in 1990. The company had a repair facility constructed near Narita airport in 1992, which received the overwhelmingly largest share of international travelers in Japan at the time.
Among the suitcases the company has repaired, damage to casters accounted for 30%. It has also repaired many handles, fasteners, locks, frames and cracks in bodies. JAL ABC employees painted the repaired parts the same color as the surrounding area so that it was not apparent which part of the suitcase has been fixed.
Some of the more notable requests from customers include: "I want it repaired because I have memories of using it during my honeymoon," and, "I want it fixed at any price because it's my travel partner I use 10 to 20 times a year." At a peak, the company repaired 26,000 suitcases in fiscal 2010. Repair costs range between 5,000 yen (about $47) and 100,000 yen (about $944), and average at 10,000 yen (about $94).
The company has received words of appreciation after returning suitcases to customers, such as, "I was able to travel again thanks to you," and, "How did you fix it so nicely?" One customer even sent JAL ABC a video of memories shot during a trip along with a letter of thanks.
However, the number of repairs has gradually decreased, from 18,000 in fiscal 2015 to 17,000 in fiscal 2016, then 16,000 in fiscal 2017 and 2018, and 12,000 in fiscal 2019. Behind this is the increasing bipolarization of suitcase prices -- those of luxury brands and cheap ones. When a suitcase is broken, someone who uses a high-end model tends to send it to the brand's maintenance department. In contrast, someone who uses a cheap suitcase likely thinks that it is less expensive to buy another cheap one.
A decline in aging repairers with expert skills is also a reason to withdraw from the business. It takes at least three or four years to train a person to fix a suitcase, and it takes more than 10 years for a person to master their trade. As the repair business has been in the red in recent years, a decision had to be made whether JAL ABC would continue operations.
A head of the suitcase division at JAL ABC said: "I thought we could keep the business going in some way as customers need this service. Ultimately, the influence of the novel coronavirus was huge. It's difficult to keep going as the pandemic hasn't dwindled even a year after the first infection was confirmed."
JAL ABC will continue its suitcase rental service, and intends to focus operating resources on businesses at airport counters, including luggage delivery services and mobile Wi-Fi device and cellphone rentals. Regarding its withdrawal from the suitcase repair business, a company representative said, "It is very regrettable, but we've judged that we can't keep the business going. We're really grateful to our customers and client companies for all their support."
(Japanese original by Tadakazu Nakamura, Narita Bureau)