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Flights linking small cities in Japan get more people in the air

Passengers on Fukuoka-Matsumoto route jump sixfold in 10 years

The number of passengers using flights between 56 regional airports, excluding major hubs such as Tokyo's Haneda Airport, rose by a third between 2008 and 2018.

NAGOYA/NAGANO, JAPAN -- Demand is surging for nonstop flights between smaller regional airports in Japan, as both businesspeople and domestic and foreign tourists look for better ways to get where they are going.

Passenger numbers on flights between New Chitose Airport and Hakodate Airport, both in Hokkaido, jumped more than sixtyfold between fiscal 2008 and fiscal 2018. Passenger traffic between Matsumoto, in Nagano Prefecture, and the southwestern city of Fukuoka increased by more than six times during the same 10-year period, while volume between Nagoya, in central Japan, and the northern city of Yamagata was nearly 300% higher.

Overall air passenger numbers were also up strongly, rising by a third over the decade surveyed for routes between any two of 56 regional airports in Japan. Demand for these point-to-point flights, which are often operated by budget or regional airlines, is growing as more overseas and domestic tourists seek to cut their time in transit.

Nikkei tabulated and analyzed passenger numbers for routes connecting the 56 airports, not including the six big hubs, such as Tokyo's Haneda Airport, and those serving remote islands, using data mostly provided by the transport ministry.

There were 76 scheduled flights -- including seasonal ones -- between regional airports in fiscal 2018, of which 37 were operated by new carriers like Shizuoka-based Fuji Dream Airlines. Of the total, 24 were not served by either of Japan's two biggest carriers, Japan Airlines or All Nippon Airways.

Seven of the 54 scheduled routes operating in 2008 saw passenger volume more than double over the next 10 years. Of these, the Fukuoka-Matsumoto route and the Nagoya (Komaki) - Kumamoto route were previously served by Japan Airlines but were taken over by Fuji Dream when JAL sought bankruptcy protection in 2010.

Fuji Dream, which launched its first flight in 2009, had expanded its network to cover some 20 routes by fiscal 2018, focusing on airports such as Nagoya and Shizuoka. Since that time, tourists have come to see the advantages of direct flights between regional airports, according to Yoshihiro Miwa, Fuji Dream's president.

The regional airline added the western city of Kobe to its network in 2019 and began service from Osaka to other regional centers: Matsumoto and Izumo in October, and Kochi in December.

A man his 30s who works for an auto parts maker says he always uses Komaki in Nagoya for business trips to Kyushu. The airport is a short 20 minutes by bus from central Nagoya.

Flights connecting Nagoya to Kumamoto in the southwest and to the northern city of Yamagata, both of which Fuji Dream inherited from JAL, are frequented by employees of Toyota Motor. Toyota is headquartered near Nagoya and the flights are convenient for keeping in touch with suppliers in and around those two cities. Demand for service between smaller airports is often fed by business travelers.

By contrast, the New Chitose - Matsumoto route, which saw passenger traffic double between 2008 and 2018, is catching on with overseas tourists who want to ski in both Hokkaido's Niseko and Hakuba in Nagano, according to Yojiro Fukushima, an official with the Hakuba tourism bureau.

Passenger traffic on the Matsumoto-Fukuoka route usually picks up at the start of hiking season in Kamikochi, in Nagano Prefecture's Japan Alps, according to a travel agency executive who handles Kyushu.

Japan's tourism boom is fueling demand for many regional flights as people grow savvier about ways to save time. Flying between New Chitose and Hakodate, for example, including the time required to reach the airport, is one hour faster than taking the train between the two cities. Foreign tourists make up about half of the passengers on the route, an official at ANA's Hakodate branch said.

The time savings are even bigger on the New Chitose - Matsumoto route. Traveling by rail between the two destinations takes more than 10 hours, compared with less than four hours by air, although it costs 20% to 30% more.

Average occupancy for flights between regional airports stood at 68.1% in fiscal 2018, up more than 10 points over the survey period. A total of 24 routes had an average occupancy rate of over 70%, the break-even point, in fiscal 2018, a big increase versus fiscal 2008.

The total number of flights on routes between local airports in 2018 rose 25.9% over 2008 figures, but the number of seats per flight fell from 116 to 105, indicating smaller aircraft are being used. This improves profitability.

Many regional airports in Japan were once derided as white elephants. But Fuji Dream's chief executive, Yohei Suzuki --- who doubles as chairman of Suzuyo the logistics company that owns the airline -- stresses that these smaller facilities are starting to be seen as crucial to breathing life back into Japan's local economies.

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