Sunday, December 22, 2013

CoachFlyer JW8541: NRT - FUK on AirAsia Japan's Airbus A320.

Travel date: October 2013
Flight: JW8541
Route: Tokyo/Narita (NRT/RJAA) - Fukuoka (FUK/RJFF) 
Carrier: AirAsia Japan (JW/WAJ)
Aircraft: Airbus A320-214 JA02AJ
Class: Economy
Direct distance: 942 km (585 miles)
Flight time: 1 hour 33 minutes

Years 2012-2013's advent of low-cost carriers (LCCs) at Tokyo/Narita (NRT/RJAA) brought changes to transportation and accommodations as well; one-way 1,000JPY airport buses now frequent the Narita Airport - Tokyo Station route and nearby airport hotels have introduced one-night 5,000JPY stays with free airport shuttle service available from 4:30AM, aimed at the LCC passengers. So I and my wife took the opportunity to savor AirAsia Japan (JW/WAJ), the failed joint-venture between Malaysian LCC AirAsia (AK/AXM) and All Nippon Airways (NH/ANA) that was dissolved after merely 10 months in service, in October right before they ceased operations.
AirAsia Japan's domestic check-in counters at Narita. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

We hopped on the hotel shuttle bus for the airport at 0530 and arrived just 10 minutes later. All Narita-based LCCs currently operate from Terminal 2. AirAsia Japan's domestic check-in counters were located at the northern end of the building on the arrivals floor. Having checked-in on AirAsia's website two days before and with no baggage to check-in, we were told that we can move on to security. For AirAsia Japan's international flights, check-in counters were in the main departures hall. 0640 was our boarding time for our flight JW8541, service to Fukuoka (FUK/RJFF), so with ample time, we decided to stroll around the hall, but after only finding a single convenience store open at this time, we decided to proceed through security at 0600. At the time of traveling, AirAsia Japan had already started winding down and had only three domestic flights per day, two to Fukuoka and one to Sapporo/New Chitose (CTS/RJCC), so there was no line anywhere and everything was hassle-free. There were actually more staff on site than the number of passengers.
The deserted Red Base. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Dubbed 'Red Base', the low-cost terminal used exclusively by AirAsia Japan had been envisioned to become the main hub for AirAsia's Japanese unit. Seeing just a few passengers and a single flight departing this morning, the view of the still new terminal certainly looked sad, especially when you're used to seeing the other bustling AirAsia hubs of Kuala Lumpur (KUL/WMKK), Bangkok/Don Mueang (DMK/VTBD), or Jakarta/Soekarno-Hatta (CGK/WIII). In the terminal was AirAsia Cafe, selling snacks, light meals, beverages, souvenirs, and AirAsia-branded merchandise. Products purchased here are allowed for consumption on board. Narita's current temporary LCC facilities are expected to be replaced in early 2015 by a permanent structure LCC terminal with 14 parking spots. Boarding started on time at Red Base's Gate M starting from handicapped passengers and pregnant mothers, though there were none, followed by Hot Seat (first five rows of seats with more legroom) passengers, though none again. Outside waited a bus that would take us to the remote LCC parking spot and eight minutes later we were on our way to our aircraft.
AirAsia Cafe at Narita. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

AirAsia Japan used the northernmost parking spots along with rival Jetstar Japan (GK/JJP), partly-owned by Japan Airlines (JL/JAL). We came to spot 100F, where JA02AJ, the airline's second Airbus A320 and also the first aircraft in the AirAsia group to wear the new billboard-style livery, was waiting for us. We found our seats at 6A and 6B, and the door was closed at 0654 with a very light load of just 27 passengers and a crew of six on board the 180-seat Airbus. At 0703, push-back was started by ANA's ground-handling, and we were moving on our own at 0709. Taxiing to so-called 'Runway C', we rotated from Runway 34R at 0713, then banking to the right heading east then banking right again heading south along the coast of Chiba prefecture. The seat-belt signs were turned off at 0720 and the crew commenced their in-flight services at 0730. We had pre-ordered a meal each for the two of us; an Asian Meal Bibimbap for 680JPY and a Beef Hamburg Steak With Tomato Sauce for 750JPY. Although not big in proportions, both satisfied our taste buds. Beverages were a bit pricey; a cup of coffee with ice at 200JPY and 350mL canned drinks offered at around 200JPY. Former JAL subsidiary TFK, which also prepares food for over 40 other carriers at Narita and Haneda, including rival Jetstar Japan, handled catering for AirAsia Japan.

Boarding JW8541. Airbus A320-214 JA02AJ. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Our base fare for this flight was 5,080JPY per person, which was booked three months in advance. As AirAsia updates fares depending on demand, this price didn't change until a few days before the flight. Adding 300JPY enabled you to pick a seat in advance and a 1,200JPY add-on would entitle you to a Hot Seat. A 200JPY processing fee was charged per person when paying by credit card. Tokyo to Fukuoka is a heavily traveled route and Haneda - Fukuoka alone (not including Narita - Fukuoka) is the world's seventh busiest air route, according to 2012 statistics. Booking three months in advance, both ANA and JAL offered around 11,000 to 17,000JPY one-way depending on the time of the day (rising to 36,000JPY for last-minute purchases) on Boeing 777s and 767s with 18 and 17 round-trips respectively, while Skymark Airlines (BC/SKY) offered 10,000JPY one-way on Boeing 737-800s 11 times daily, and Starflyer (7G/SFJ) offered 10,970JPY one-way on Airbus A320s flying 10 round-trips. On the Narita - Fukuoka route, competitor Jetstar Japan offered four or five round-trips a day with a base fare of 5,590JPY plus a 300JPY processing fee. So AirAsia Japan, though with only two daily round-trips, had indeed the lowest fare in the market.
JW8541's load for this day was 27 passengers. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

At 0738, Captain Sakamoto made his announcement welcoming passengers and that Mt. Fuji was visible on our left. He made another seven minutes later telling we were flying over Nagoya. It was a clear day and most of the ground was visible, until near Osaka when clouds below started to obstruct our view. Soon, lights in the cabin were dimmed and most of the passengers were taking a nap, as it had been an early day's start. I took the opportunity to walk around the cabin, take a few shots, and chat with the cabin crew. After a smooth cruise, at 0820 the crew started collecting any trash remaining, and gradual descent started two minutes later. Seat-belt signs were turned on at 0835 and as our aircraft approached from the north side of Fukuoka, gears were lowered at 0844. With its proximity to downtown, this approach to Fukuoka might remind some of Hong Kong's old airport Kai Tak. Buildings in the city have a height restriction depending on the distance from the airport, and a curfew of 7AM to 10PM has limited the number of flights. Flying right above the buildings of the city, we touched down on Runway 16 at 0846, for a total flight time of one hour and 33 minutes. We taxied to Gate 13 in Terminal 1 for an 0850 arrival, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. It was a flawless flight, and enjoyable as well.
Beef Hamburg Steak With Tomato Sauce. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

For the staff, it must have been a roller-coaster two years. When AirAsia Japan was launched in August 31, 2011, gathered under the red banner were people with various backgrounds; some had quit the incumbents for a new career, while others had never had any experience with an airline. After a year of training at AirAsia's headquarters in Malaysia together with rigorous but exciting preparations, the airline only took off on August 1st, 2012, and JW8541 was their maiden flight. Japanese media covered the LCCs well, however, they were also quick to be strong critics, initially making LCCs synonymous with hasty service, delays, cancellations, and safety violations; flight attendants couldn't finish in-flight service, targeted turnaround times couldn't be met also due to the use of congested airports, flights were delayed and some Jetstar Japan and AirAsia Japan flights couldn't arrive back at Narita before the curfew, thus effecting next day's schedule, and Jetstar Japan had allowed some mechanics that did not meet the airline's internal standards to work. So though marking a load factor of 84.4% in August, AirAsia Japan recorded 68.3% for September, 56.9% for October, and 55.9% for November, well below the targeted 80%. During the same period, Jetstar Japan recorded 85.6%, 76.7%, 69.4%, and 64.9%, respectively. Jestar Japan provided more discount opportunities than AirAsia Japan, which helped loads, but kept yields low.
Asian Meal Bibimbap, served only on AirAsia Japan. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Realizing they were falling behind the competition, AirAsia Japan started making changes in December 2012. Although both ANA veterans, CEO Kazuyuki Iwakata was replaced by Yoshinori Odagiri, and the number of executives was reduced from 10 to seven, aimed at quicker decision-making. AirAsia Japan made payments possible at Japan's ubiquitous convenience stores (420JPY charge), teamed up with travel agency BigHoliday to produce AirAsia Holidays all-inclusive packages, and abolished the 1,000JPY counter check-in fee. AirAsia Japan also wanted to reduce AirAsia's strict 45-minute check-in cut-off time to 30 minutes, with rival Jetstar Japan at 30 minutes, Peach Aviation (MM/APJ) at 25 minutes, Skymark at 20 minutes, and both ANA and JAL at 15 minutes, but that never came to fruition. Some staff admitted that the CEO had 'a difficult time' balancing out AirAsia's interests with that of ANA's. In the meantime, staff were gaining more experience, trying harder, and performing better. On March 31st, 2013, AirAsia Japan launched Nagoya/Chubu Centrair (NGO/RJGG) operations, designating the city its second hub.
Mt. Fuji in the upper left. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

But as though those efforts weren't enough, on June 10th, news circulated that AirAsia and ANA would dissolve the joint-venture. ANA Holdings chief Shinichiro Ito visited the Red Base the following day, assuring anxious staff that all of AirAsia Japan's jobs would be secure no matter what happens. An official announcement of the divorce was made on June 25th. Various rumors of AirAsia Japan's fate spread, including a merger with Peach, or a complete shut-down. But in times of uncertainty, the staff continued to serve with a smile, work hard, yet trying to maintain a fun mood. And on August 20th, 2013, ANA Holdings announced that AirAsia Japan would be relaunched as Vanilla Air.
JW8541's cheerful flight attendants. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Peach, the so-far most successful Japanese LCC partially-owned by ANA, was unenthusiastic about absorbing AirAsia Japan's operations. Peach entered the Tokyo market with two Osaka/Kansai (KIX/RJBB) - Narita round-trips starting in October 2013, however, they made it clear that they don't intend to make any highly-regulated airport a hub. For ANA, closing down AirAsia Japan and completely pulling out of the LCC scene at Narita was also a choice, but that would have meant that ANA is giving up the pie to Jetstar Japan, minority-owned by JAL, an expanding Skymark, and possible future competitors like Spring Airlines Japan. Thus Vanilla Air, as an inevitable consequence, was born.
JA02AJ departing Fukuoka back to Narita. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Of AirAsia Japan's 400 staff, approximately 30 who wished to continue working with the AirAsia brand moved to Malaysia, mostly to fly international with AirAsia X (D7/XAX), the group's medium-to-long-haul LCC, while most have chosen to work with Vanilla Air, now 100%-controlled by ANA. AirAsia Japan ceased operations under the AirAsia brand on October 26th, 2013, and re-launched flights as Vanilla Air on December 20th.

Whether AirAsia can come back to the world's third largest market is unsure, but for now, farewell AirAsia Japan. Wishing good luck to all involved!

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