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By Dennis Lau, Senior valuations analyst at Ascend by Cirium
Japan is known by many as the Land of the Rising Sun, but the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic can still be felt in the country, just like the rest of the world. With the recent relaxation of pandemic measures and entry requirements, the commercial aviation sector in Japan now starts its path to recovery.
While some travel restrictions have been put in place during the pandemic, domestic air travel has been relatively less affected. According to Cirium data, the lowest number of monthly scheduled domestic flights recorded was in April 2021, when only 56% of scheduled flights were actually flown. The seasonal variations were much more pronounced, with the traditional peak periods of the “Golden Week” (late April / early May), summer and winter peak seasons seeing some spikes in demand. With overseas leisure trips still largely out of the question until recent weeks, the Japanese are still keen to take domestic vacations during the getaway periods, despite the pandemic situation.
Since mid-2021, airlines have further adjusted their domestic schedules to cope with the changing demand and there have been fewer cancellations. During the most recent “Golden Week” period in April/May 2022, the number of scheduled and flown flights rebounded to almost pre-pandemic level at around 70,000, and “chaotic scenes” were reported at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport with the large number of travelers leaving the capital.
It has been a completely different story for international travel to and from Japan. With non-Japanese citizens barred from entering the country since early on in the pandemic, the number of scheduled international passenger flights serving Japan reduced significantly by up to 90% year-on-year. Completion rate is relatively high, but some airlines operated cargo-only services using their scheduled flights, without flying any passengers.
From June 10, 2022, Japan will allow 20,000 foreigners per day to enter the country, subject to some restrictions. While airlines have not yet resumed flights close to pre-pandemic levels, most have announced resumptions during the peak summer period, but still with reduced frequencies.
Despite the challenges during the pandemic, Japanese airlines tried to remain positive and continue to promote their bands. Idle aircraft were turned into gourmet restaurants and wedding venues, popular in-flight menu items were packaged and sold to the public, open days were held and sightseeing flights over Japan were offered to those who really missed the flying experience.
Pre-Covid, Japan was a hugely popular destination for visitors from the East Asia region, including mainland China (over 9.5 million in 2019), South Korea (5.5 million), Taiwan (4.9 million) and Hong Kong (2.3 million). One of the main drivers is the wide availability of flights serving these destinations, especially from the low-cost carriers (LCCs). LCCs have been very much affected by the significant reduction in demand during the pandemic, with most Japanese LCCs having suspended all international routes. As borders re-open, the resumption of LCC flights will play a vital role in market recovery in Japan.
Over 20 million outbound Japanese travellers made trips abroad during 2019. While travel restrictions have eased for some regions such as North America, many popular destinations are effectively still closed.
The launch of new “hybrid” low-cost carriers using twin-aisle aircraft on medium and long-haul routes is an interesting prospect for the Japanese market.
Japan Airlines’ Zipair commenced operations in 2020 during the height of the pandemic. With strong backing from its parent company, Zipair is building its brand in the market and well placed to expand as more travel restrictions are relaxed. Rival All Nippon also sees potential in this sector, with Air Japan set to launch in late 2023. While these carriers mainly cater for Japanese passengers, their ability to gain international recognition will be key to future success.
There is still a long way to recovery for the Japanese market, especially international air travel, but the signs of a sunrise are now on the horizon.
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