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Japan's low-cost carriers make forays into cargo amid pandemic-led passenger drop

Fresh fish caught in the Kyushu region is seen as they are transferred at Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture from Jetstar's airplane to JAL's flight to Bangkok on Feb. 8, 2021. (Mainichi/Tadakazu Nakamura)

NARITA, Chiba -- With air passenger numbers down drastically amid the coronavirus pandemic, Japan's low-cost carriers are putting their efforts into the cargo business as part of a bid to increase sales by even a slight margin, with new initiatives including helping to deliver fresh fish to Thailand.

    Fresh catch from southwest Japan's Kyushu region, including great amberjack, Japanese horse mackerel and Japanese amberjack, are traded at the Japan Fresh Wholesale Market in Bangkok's Thonglor district every Tuesday morning. Fish bought there quickly line shelves at local luxury supermarkets, or are sliced into sashimi at Japanese restaurants.

    Freshness is of particular importance for fish, and they arrive to market within 24 hours of leaving Kyushu's Fukuoka Airport. The catch is brought to the airport from Nagahama Fish Market in the city of Fukuoka and the Kagoshima Prefecture city of Tarumizu by Monday morning, and are packed into plastic foam boxes with cold compresses and ice bags, then placed in containers.

    Ground staff are seen loading cardboard boxes into a Peach Aviation plane's cargo compartment on Feb. 4, 2021. (Mainichi/Tadakazu Nakamura)

    They are then taken on a passenger flight operated by low-cost carrier Jetstar Japan Co., which departs Fukuoka at 10:05 a.m. for Narita International Airport outside Tokyo. After customs clearance, they are transferred to a Japan Airlines (JAL) plane departing for Bangkok at 6:10 p.m. Reportedly an average of about 0.1 metric tons of fish are carried each day.

    In recent years, Japanese cuisine has become more popular in Thailand, with health-consciousness and demand from Thai tourists who have been to Japan among the factors behind the rise. With JAL halting its late-night passenger flights between Tokyo's Haneda Airport and Bangkok at the end of March 2020 due to the infections spread, delivery of Fukuoka's fresh fish also stopped temporarily.

    But JAL started operating a round-trip cargo flight between Haneda and Bangkok once a week in November, thereby connecting Fukuoka-Haneda-Bangkok routes. Additionally, the company began in December to transport fish from Narita by using a code-shared flight with Jetstar between Fukuoka and Narita. The flights have made it possible to deliver fresh fish to Bangkok's Japanese market again. Demand for Japanese food in Thailand is reportedly greater than before because the coronavirus is blocking people from visiting Japan.

    A decline in passenger numbers under the second state of emergency led Jetstar to operate flights on just six major routes in February, and flights were down 86% on its initial schedule. Under the circumstances, it expects to expand its cargo business after succeeding in fresh fish transport to Bangkok in cooperation with its biggest shareholder JAL.

    "Using this case as an opportunity, we want to work to win overseas transportation businesses via Narita," a Jetstar representative said. "We'd like to contribute to an increase in inbound tourists after the coronavirus pandemic ends through our operations delivering Japanese food culture to customers abroad, who cannot travel freely yet."

    JAL aims to expand its transportation routes for goods abroad in the future, with a view to utilizing Jetstar's flights connecting Narita with the southern Kyushu region, the Shikoku region in western Japan and the city of Sapporo in northern Japan.

    "We're looking at Jetstar, which operates domestic flights from Narita," said a foreman at JAL's cargo division. "We'd like to stick with maintaining freshness and deliver Japanese local products abroad."

    Meanwhile, Peach Aviation Ltd, another low-cost carrier, launched a domestic cargo transport business on code-sharing flights with All Nippon Airways Co. (ANA) last November. Peach Aviation is aiming for sales growth by meeting demand from the active air cargo business in the whole ANA group. The company currently carries cargo on 10 domestic routes. On four routes connecting Narita with New Chitose Airport in the northernmost prefecture of Hokkaido, Kansai International Airport in the western prefecture of Osaka, Fukuoka, and Naha Airport in the southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, it transfers cargo at Narita to ANA's international flights, delivering goods worldwide.

    On Feb. 4 at Narita International Airport, ground staff were seen loading by hand individual cardboard boxes onto a conveyer belt on a special vehicle. After the purple-liveried Peach Aviation airplane's rear compartment door was opened, they loaded the cargo inside. One said, "I handle them carefully to avoid damaging them."

    Staff work carefully and quickly; because cargo containers can't fit into Peach Aviation's small aircraft, staffers have to load bulk goods by hand. Though they load as much as 0.8 metric tons of cargo, excluding passengers' luggage, the amount is extremely small compared to the amount taken on ANA's cargo plane Boeing 777F, which has capacity for up to 100 tons of goods. Peach Aviation carried an average total of 3 tons of cargo a day on all routes in November and December 2020. Many of the items were fresh products, as well as other food items, household goods and electrical components.

    Behind the company's decision to launch cargo transport services, even by a small amount, is the sales drops that have come with the coronavirus. "As one means to increase sales, we started loading cargo into spaces we couldn't make use of," a company representative said. "With high demand for cargo transportation of parcel deliveries, a tight supply-demand balance will continue for the time being." They also said that they will start international cargo transportation as early as April.

    (Japanese original by Tadakazu Nakamura, Narita Bureau)

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