November 25, 2013 7:00 am JST

Japanese airlines facing threat from below

TOKYO (Nikkei) -- For major Japanese carriers vying for international routes, solidifying operations on the homefront is crucial. Yet they face an increasingly formidable competitor in ever-evolving shinkansen bullet trains.

     Tadao Nishio, a Japan Airlines executive officer in charge of domestic route marketing, was taken aback by how comfortable his ride had been on a recent bullet train trip. The train did not seem to shake sideways like it used to. "This is a problem," Nishio said with a sense of dread. Smooth shinkansen trips mean fewer passengers for JAL. Nozomi services between Osaka and Tokyo have increased following the expansion of Shin-Oasaka Station in March. With the switch to more comfortable trains, the threat to airlines is growing.

     The Ministry of Transportation formed a committee on Nov. 1 to discuss increasing the number of landing and departure slots at greater Tokyo airports. "Nothing will be considered a sacred cow in our discussions," says Hitoshi Ieda, a University of Tokyo professor who chairs the panel. One of the items on the committee's packed agenda is converting some landing slots at Haneda from domestic to international routes, a proposal that seeks to accommodate more international flights without a costly expansion. With shinkansen networks extending their reach to most regions of Japan, including Kyushu, Hokuriku and Hokkaido, critics contend that Haneda is serving more domestic flights than necessary.

     3-hour barrier

     Japanese carriers have steadily lost ground to shinkansen in recent years. In 2003, a shinkansen stop opened in Tokyo's Shinagawa, and Nozomi service increased sharply. Six out of 10 travelers on the Tokyo-Hiroshima line used to fly the route, but now the ratio has reversed in favor of the bullet train. One theory is that travelers choose shinkansen if the trip takes less than three hours. This past March, Tohoku Shinkansen revved up its speed, reducing the travel time between Tokyo and Shin-Aomori to just under three hours -- two hours and 59 minutes at the shortest.

     Meanwhile, JAL was forced to use smaller aircraft on Haneda-Aomori flights starting in October. Its revenue from domestic routes in fiscal 2012 came to just around 70% of the peak in fiscal 2006, or about 200 billion yen ($1.97 billion) lower. The drop was blamed on service cuts following the carrier's bankruptcy, as well as shinkansen siphoning away customers.

     All Nippon Airlines is fearful that the same passenger drop-off would happen for its service to the Hokuriku area on the Sea of Japan coast. The carrier generates two-thirds of its passenger revenue domestically, offering 12 services linking Haneda with Toyoma and Komatsu.

     And with the lighting fast magnetic-levitation shinkansen service set to open in 2027, the battle at home is certain to heat up.