Saturday, August 16, 2014

AirAsia Japan selects Nagoya Chubu Centrair.

AirAsia Japan (Mk II) has reportedly made its final decision to make Nagoya/Chubu Centrair (NGO/RJGG) its hub (New AirAsia Japan to be based at Nagoya Chubu Centrair.). On August 15th, CEO Yoshinori Odagiri revealed in an interview that they will set up a maintenance base at the airport serving Japan's third largest metropolitan area. "While there are no vacancies at Haneda and Narita not open 24 hours a day, Centrair is open around the clock," said Mr. Odagiri, adding "Kansai is attractive, but the situation is tough for a latecomer." Initial routes being considered are to Fukuoka (FUK/RJFF) and Sapporo/New Chitose (CTS/RJCC), with Taipei/Taoyuan (TPE/RCTP) expected to be their first international destination. 

On July 1st, AirAsia announced the reincarnation of their Japanese unit (AirAsia Japan is officially reborn; first flight June 2015.), this time with non-airline partners which includes Octave Japan Infrastructure Fund (19%), Rakuten (18%), Noevir Holdings (9%), and Alpen (5%) with an initial capital totaling 7 billion JPY together with AirAsia (49%). Voting-rights-based, AirAsia will control 33%, the maximum possible figure allowed under Japan's current airline foreign ownership laws, while Octave will have 28.2%, Rakuten 18%, Noevir 13.4%, and Alpen 7.4%.
Airbus A320-214 JA01AJ of AirAsia Japan (Mk I) sits at Narita in its final days in Japan. The aircraft is now with the group's Indonesian unit as PK-AZJ. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Work is underway for a June 2015 launch, or "July 20th (2015) at latest," according to Mr. Odagiri, with a fleet of two 180-seat Airbus A320s supplied from AirAsia Group's huge order pool. It will likely start off with two routes from Chubu Centrair, most likely Fukuoka and New Chitose with three round-trips each, later expanding to other domestic and regional international destinations, with Taiwan expected to be the first of the latter. A 'Fly-Thru' product will also be offered including on AirAsia X (D7/XAX), which already serves Chubu Centrair four times weekly from Kuala Lumpur (KUL/WMKK). Two more A320s will be added before the end of 2015, with five to be added each year from 2016 onwards. A320neo aircraft will be added from 2016, putting Vietnam within range. Its first full-year profit is targeted by FY2017, its third year of operations.

The Chubu Centrair – New Chitose route is currently served by All Nippon Airways' (NH/ANA) Group seven times daily using Boeing 767s and 737s, Japan Airlines (JL/JAL) five times daily with 737s, Skymark Airlines (BC/SKY) twice daily with 737s, and Jetstar Japan (GK/JJP) once daily with A320s. The Fukuoka route is served by ANA six times daily with A320s, 737s, and Bombardier CRJs, Star Flyer (7G/SFJ) four times daily with A320s, de facto operating for ANA (Star Flyer to add ANA's code on all flights.), and Jetstar Japan once daily with A320s. Fuji Dream Airlines (JH/FDA) flies five round-trips connecting Nagoya/Komaki (NKM/RJNA) and Fukuoka, with JAL code-sharing on all flights.

However, Mr. Odagiri is bullish about getting slots at Tokyo/Haneda (HND/RJTT), saying Tokyo/Narita (NRT/RJAA) is too far and curfew-plagued, while Ibaraki (IBR/RJAH) is cost effective but again too far and also too small for a hub. "For 2020 (Tokyo Olympics/Paralympics), the MLIT (Japan Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism) is considering all options, and we would like to make the necessary preparations," citing the government seriously talking about opening up airspace over metropolitan Tokyo, which could potentially create 50 or so more slot-pairs. Haneda operates four runways that are fully utilized, however, current airspace restrictions force all aircraft to arrive from and depart towards Tokyo Bay, meaning the number of movements per runway is kept low. A new runway would not make it before 2020.
AirAsia Japan (Mk I) and (Mk II) CEO Yoshinori Odagiri. (Photo: Aviation Wire)

If they fail to get slots at Haneda, Mr. Odagiri says they would have to consider Narita and Ibaraki, but at the same time ask to open up military airports in the Kanto (Greater Tokyo) region such as Japan Self Defense Force (JSDF)-controlled Atsugi (NTA/RJTA) and U.S. Air Force (USAF)-controlled Yokota (OKO/RJTY). Asked if AirAsia Japan (Mk II) is interested in partnering with troubled Skymark (Skymark posts 5.7 billion JPY loss for 1Q FY2014.), which currently holds 36 prized slot-pairs at Haneda, "Nothing has materialized, but we keep all doors open," he answered.

The Malaysia-based LCC group's first crack at the Japanese market with AirAsia Japan (JW/WAJ) (Mk I) (CoachFlyer JW8541: NRT - FUK on AirAsia Japan's Airbus A320.) ended in a divorce with joint-venture (JV) partner ANA, only 10 months after launching operations in August 2012, due to disagreements over how the airline would be run. "We would first listen to Tony (Fernandes), then bring it to ANA. But couldn't get expected responses in expected time frames," says Mr. Odagiri, who also headed the first incarnation. It ceased operations on October 26th, 2013, and relaunched as Vanilla Air (JW/VNL) under 100% ANA ownership on December 20th (Vanilla Air launches operations.). 

Another factor behind the failure was AirAsia's website being deemed difficult to use by the Japanese public; it asked to fill out passport information even on domestic flights, required to fill out the 'Issuing Bank' of a credit card which is not the norm in Japan, and simply took too much time. "What the Japanese feel as easy-to-use is something like," Mr. Odagiri said, adding "A Japanese manager has been assigned to take over AirAsia's website development. A revamped easy-to-use website for the entire group should be up by Spring 2015, and small bugs should be fixed by the time we start ops."

AirAsia Japan (Mk II) has already started crew recruiting. "Some employees remained with Vanilla Air for the sake of jobs, but they didn't enter the airline just to work for a company that would change its brand in just 10 months," said Mr. Odagiri, implying some if not many of the current employees at Vanilla could move to the red brand. It is rumored that AirAsia is offering crew salaries similar to ANA's figures, which could lure JAL crews, whose salaries were drastically cut during that group's restructuring. Pilot shortages have plagued LCCs Peach Aviation (MM/APJ) (Peach outlines Summer 2014 mass cancellations.) and Vanilla (Vanilla Air cancels 154 flights in June due to pilot shortage.) with mass cancellations.

Together with their recently-launched India unit, AirAsia Group's second attempt at the Japanese market is also part of their strategy to shift dependence from Southeast Asia, a still-growing but becoming an over-crowded market, to other parts of Asia and beyond, and to become a global brand. Although nothing has been decided yet, AirAsia is considering an affiliate in eastern Europe, as well as an AirAsia X India that would put Africa and Europe within range, and an AirAsia X Japan that would enable them to reach Canada, Hawaii, and west coast U.S.A. The group's recent order for 50 A330-900neo aircraft would obviously be too much for just the current AirAsia X brands in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand to absorb.

Reference: Traicy, July 29th. (in Japanese)
Reference: Jiji Press, August 15th. (in Japanese)
Reference: Japan Times, August 16th. (in English)

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