TOKYO -- Japan's three budget airlines are having trouble finding enough manpower since launching services about two years ago. That may thwart their hopes of disrupting the Japan aviation industry.
"I was worried this sort of problem might happen to budget airlines," said a woman boarding a Peach Aviation flight bound for Taiwan on Thursday at Kansai International Airport in Osaka.
On April 28, a Peach plane descended to a dangerously low altitude of about 75 meters near Naha Airport in Okinawa Prefecture. The airline allowed the pilot, an Argentine, to fly again that day despite the error.
Just four days before that incident, Peach said that it would cut more than 2,000 flights from its schedule for the six months through October, because of a pilot shortage. "The announcement has not led to any cancellations so far," said Takeaki Mori, head of the airline's flight operation department, but the impact of the reductions is anything but minor. Peach will have to scrap almost all the additional flights it had planned for the summer, costing it about 3 billion yen ($29 million) in revenue.
Peach is the leader in Japan's budget airlines, overtaking rivals, Jetstar Japan and Vanilla Air. Its domestic flights are 70% full for the Golden Week holiday season from April 25 to May 6, Jetstar's seats for the same period are only 52.5% occupied, Vanilla's are 42.7% full.
Limited landing slots at Haneda and Itami airports, which serve central Tokyo and Osaka, respectively, have forced the newcomers to fly out of distant Narita and Kansai airports. Peach has an edge over Jetstar and Vanilla because it is the sole discount carrier based in Kansai. That lets it scoop up nearly all the passengers in Osaka and the Kansai region, while its rivals slug it out in Narita for the Greater Tokyo market.
Peach is not the only discount airline plagued by personnel shortages. In November 2012, Jetstar was reprimanded by Japan's transport ministry for assigning unqualified engineers to maintenance work at Kansai International. It planned to open an aircraft parking apron and maintenance facility at the airport by the end of that year, but that plan has now been shelved.
During Golden Week, Peach has 53% more seats available than a year ago for domestic flights. Jetstar has increased seat numbers by 73%. The airlines' rapid expansion is one reason for the acute personnel shortages.
It was hoped Japan's budget operators would offer a cheap alternative to Japan's full-service airlines. But they still account for just 6% of domestic flights in terms of seats. It remains unclear when they will begin having a major impact on the country's commercial aviation market.