Thursday, July 3, 2014

ANA returns to Aomori with Osaka and Sapporo flights.

On July 1st, All Nippon Airways (NH/ANA) resumed scheduled service at Aomori (AOJ/RJSA) with three daily round-trips to and from Osaka/Itami (ITM/RJOO) and two to and from Sapporo/New Chitose (CTS/RJCC). Operated by subsidiary ANA Wings' (EH/AKX) 74-seat Bombardier DHC-8-400Qs, the flights mark the return of now Japan's largest airline by passenger volume to Honshu's northernmost airport after a 11-year hiatus.
Bombardier DHC-8-402Q JA845A arriving at Aomori from Sapporo's New Chitose as NH1853 on July 1st, the inaugural day. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

The inaugural flight out of Aomori, NH1852, service to Itami, was operated by DHC-8-402Q JA856A with a load of 73 passengers. The aircraft had been ferried in to Aomori the night before. Sistership JA853A became the first to arrive, as NH1851 from Itami, and was greeted by a water-cannon salute.

Flight schedule (July 1st - October 25th):
Osaka/Itami – Aomori NEW 3 daily with DHC-8-400Q. *Operated by ANA Wings.
NH1851 ITM 0815 – 1000 AOJ DH4 Daily
NH1853 ITM 1155 – 1340 AOJ DH4 Daily
NH1855 ITM 1910 – 2055 AOJ DH4 Daily
NH1852 AOJ 0805 – 1000 ITM DH4 Daily
NH1854 AOJ 1310 – 1505 ITM DH4 Daily
NH1856 AOJ 1740 – 1935 ITM DH4 Daily

Aomori – Sapporo/New Chitose NEW 2 daily with DHC-8-400Q. *Operated by ANA Wings.
NH1897 AOJ 1030 – 1120 CTS DH4 Daily
NH1899 AOJ 1510 – 1600 CTS DH4 Daily
NH1898 CTS 1150 – 1240 AOJ DH4 Daily
NH1900 CTS 1615 – 1705 AOJ DH4 Daily
A ceremony took place at Aomori Airport, attended by Aomori Prefecture Governor Shingo Mimura, Aomori City Governor Hiroshi Shikanai, and ANA's Executive Vice President for Sales and Marketing Takashi Shiki. ANA President Osamu Shinobe visited Mr. Mimura one day before. "We've been waiting for this moment. We would like to strengthen our partnerships with the Kansai (Greater Osaka) region to promote tourism and help the route grow," said Mr. Mimura, adding "Ahead of that lies another big ambition," hoping for ANA's resumption of their Tokyo/Haneda (HND/RJTT) link. Mr. Shiki responded, "We have a big international network from Haneda now (ANA's Summer 2014 international expansion.). We also share the desire to open up Aomori's charm to the world."
The brand-new ANA counters at Aomori with celebration flower decorations. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)
Aomori has seen turbulent times in recent years. In FY2003, its annual passenger number recorded 1.41 million, however, after the merger of Japan Airlines (JL/JAL) and Japan Air System (JD/JAS) was complete, ANA withdrew from Aomori in April that year, axing its link to Haneda and shifting the precious slots to more lucrative routes. Skymark Airlines (BC/SKY) briefly filled the vacancy but withdrew in November. JAL's financial woes forced the airline to cut its link to Fukuoka (FUK/RJFF) in 2007 and Nagoya/Chubu Centrair (NGO/RJGG) in 2010. Dealing a further blow, the opening of the super-efficient Shinkansen (bullet train) to Aomori in 2010 followed shortly by the 3.11 Great East Japan Earthquake reduced the number to merely 800,000 for FY2010.

The Nagoya link was restarted by Fuji Dream Airlines (JH/FDA) with service (CoachFlyer JH366: AOJ – NKM on Fuji Dream Airlines' Embraer E175.) to its older airport at Komaki (NKM/RJNA) in 2011. Other than the ANA and FDA flights, Aomori is served by Japan Airlines (JL/JAL) with three-times daily each to New Chitose and Itami (operated by J-Air), and six-times daily to Haneda, while Korean Air (KE/KAL) maintains a three-times weekly service to Seoul/Incheon (ICN/RKSI) (CoachFlyer KE768: AOJ - ICN on Korean Air's Boeing 737.), the prefecture's sole scheduled international route. Passenger numbers slightly increased to 850,000 for FY2013.
Arriving passengers were greeted by ANA banners promoting the Aomori launch. To the right is a miniature version of Aomori's renowned Nebuta. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

For ANA, the resumption is also a strategy to experiment potential markets in Japan's mature domestic market (at least at ANA/JAL's costs) where the population has started to decline. ANA's most recent new domestic destination was Iwakuni (IWK/RJOI) in eastern Yamaguchi Prefecture, when the joint U.S. Air Force (USAF) - Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) base was opened up for civilian flights in December 2012.

Aomori hopes ANA's comeback will boost demand. In 2011, when ANA entered the Akita (AXT/RJSK) – Itami market in competition with JAL, passengers carried on the route increased from 100,000 in FY2011 to 170,000 in FY2013. On the other hand, airports such as Yamaguchi-Ube (UBJ/RJDC) saw passengers decline after JAL entered the ANA-dominated market in FY2002; the figure was 960,000 for FY2003 but had decreased to 850,000 in FY2013. Prefecture officials hope it doesn't "end up with both carriers losing money and terminating the route," and JAL's Aomori Office chief Yutaka Fukuda said "There's certainly potential demand. But two carriers serving the route doesn't mean the market will grow overnight. We need to make efforts."

Aomori is one of the most beautiful and diverse prefectures of Japan, but remains an under-served and under-explored tourist destination. From the Hakkoda Mountains, which gets heavier annual snowfall than anywhere else in Japan, to the renowned UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shirakami-Sanchi, picturesque Lake Towada to the nature abundant Shimokita Peninsula, Aomori is filled with fascinating vast landscapes. On the culture side, it is home to the famous Nebuta festival, when the entire prefecture goes for celebration in August, as well as the Sannai-Maruyama Ruins, one of the oldest archaeological sites in Japan dating back to 3900 B.C., and much more. Food is no exception, with the Tsugaru cuisine and the Nanbu cuisine, and forget not the fresh fish (Sashimi and Sushi) from the surrounding seas and the herbs from the mountains. There are countless Onsens (public hot spring baths) as well. 

Reference: Yomiuri Shimbun, June 29th. (in Japanese)
Reference: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 2nd. (in Japanese) 

*Post edited/updated on July 5th.

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