Archive for the ‘Travel & Transportation’ Category

Japanese low-cost carriers hit hard by pilot shortage

Sunday, May 25th, 2014

Onward and upward: Plane taking off from Narita airport

Onward and upward: Plane taking off from Narita International Airport

Low-cost carriers (LCC ) — airlines with cheaper fares than standard carriers — came relatively late to Japan. Peach Aviation was the first in March 2012, followed by Jetstar Japan, an affiliate of Australia’s Qantas Airlines, in July of the same year, and then Air Asia Japan, which has since changed its name to Vanilla Air, for some reason. (Skymark, which also charges less that most airlines, is technically not an LCC.)

As of March, LCCs accounted for 7.5 percent of domestic passengers, which isn’t bad, and growth seemed assured, but suddenly all three bargain airlines have hit a wall. Vanilla recently announced that it will cancel 154 flights, or 20 percent of its schedule, for June, and Peach said it would curtail its own schedule by more than 2,000 flights through October. Jetstar had planned to expand its flight coverage this year but has since postponed those plans.

The reason is a serious shortage of pilots, in particular flight captains. Vanilla says it has had personnel problems recently due to pilots quitting or taking sick leave, but its president, Tomonori Ishii, has assured the public that it will address the problem by “borrowing” personnel from its parent, ANA, but on a temporary basis. Of Peach’s 52 captains, eight were out of action due to illness or injury, but, in fact, the problem is more intractable.

CONTINUE READING about Japan's pilot shortage →

Golden Week activity influenced more by logistics than by economics

Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

Too late to stop now: Travel brochures for Okinawa and Hokkaido

Too late to stop now: Travel brochures for Okinawa and Hokkaido

This year’s Golden Week holiday isn’t as golden as it normally is owing to the way the national holidays that make it possible fall in relation to the days of the week. Showa no hi (the Showa Emperor’s birthday) was on a Tuesday and Constitution Day on a Saturday, so there was enough time between them for people to work, which means they didn’t get those days off. That left a measly 4-day weekend to get all the things people usually do during Golden Week done — like visit their home towns — and the truncated time period meant more highway congestion in a shorter time span, which the media treats with such predictable urgency every year that it has become something of cultural touchstone. In any case, all that gasoline wasted in 45-km traffic jams and constant stops at expressway service areas doesn’t make up economically for the money lost during the reduced holiday.

The Japan Travel Bureau declared that the Golden Week holiday started on April 25 and ended May 6, despite the fact that, for the first half of that period, schools weren’t closed the whole time so it wasn’t a bona fide “break” for families with children, regardless of whether or not dad had to work.

According to a JTB survey of 1,200 people who presumably already knew what they were going to spend over the holiday, the amount expended per person for those who planned to travel domestically was ¥34,400, or 4.2 percent less than last year. For overseas travelers the amount was ¥249,500, which represents an increase of 8.1 percent. The peak days for domestic departures were May 3-4, and for foreign departures May 2-3, thus proving that the first half of the holiday was virtually meaningless. This concentration of recreation into such a short period will likely spawn even more post-GW stories than usual on the spike in attendant divorces and job resignations.

CONTINUE READING about Golden Week 2014 →

Consumption tax hike projected to increase appeal of electronic money

Monday, March 24th, 2014

The ones: You'll be seeing more of these guys in the near future

The ones: You’ll be seeing more of these guys in the near future

Last month the national mint intensified production of ¥1 coins in anticipation of the consumption tax hike on April 1. The Ministry of Finance wants 26 million of them manufactured by the end of March, and then another 160 million after the start of the new fiscal year. Once the consumption tax goes up from 5 to 8 percent, retailers will need more small change.

With a 5 percent tax, it’s relatively easy for stores to limit their use of coins since they can set prices based on multiples of 5. Maybe it’s possible to do that with multiples of 8, too, but not right away, and many fear they will not have enough ¥1 coins on hand when the tax hike goes into effect. An employee of the nationwide ¥100 shop CanDo told Asahi Shimbun, “Altough we sometimes receive ¥1 coins in payment from customers, we don’t recycle them as change to other customers, but now we’re trying to hoard as many as possible.”

If the consumption tax increase is an inconvenience to retailers, it’s even more of a pain in the neck for the government, since it costs between ¥2 and ¥3 to make a ¥1 coin, which is 100 percent aluminum. It’s the first time the mint has produced ¥1 coins on anything approaching this scale in four years. It will also produce an extra 100 million ¥5 coins, just to be safe. The government doesn’t want to relive the small change panic that happened in 1989, when the 3 percent consumption tax was first introduced.

CONTINUE READING about the consumption tax hike's effect on e-money →

Special K: Mini-cars come of age in a maxi-world

Sunday, January 26th, 2014

Thinking inside the box: Honda's N-WGN

Thinking inside the box: Honda’s N-WGN

The nationwide used car dealer, Gulliver, recently set up a new venture called Gulliver Minicle, which deals only in kei-jidosha, often referred to as minicars in English, though here we like to call them K-cars, which make up a separate class of automobile. The engine displacement can’t be more than 660cc, and they were developed in the ’60s and ’70s for people with limited incomes.

When K-cars first appeared the engines were as small as 360cc, and have always been a point of contention for the U.S. automobile industry, which describes them as a “non-tariff trade barrier” because taxes for K-cars have been much less than they are for regular cars and thus are deemed as being unfair competition for infamously larger American cars — though it should be noted that U.S. automakers have tried to sell compacts in Japan.

K-cars have always had one glaring drawback. Because the engine is so small, they have to be light, and that means they are less safe. Consequently, families don’t buy them; or, at least, they didn’t until recently.

Gulliver’s launch of a retail entity that only sells used K-cars shows that there must be a viable market, since K-cars are already cheap and Japanese people aren’t big used car buyers. So far there is only one Minicle, in Morioka, and it has about 50 cars on display divided into three sizes: S, M and L, like apparel.

According to an article about the store in the Asahi Shimbun, there really isn’t much difference in the sizes, but the designations appeal to women, who are now the main target demographic for K-cars. There is even a play space in the store where kids can relax while mom is shopping for new wheels.

Gulliver is already planning Minicle stores in Hokkaido, Tohoku, Kyushu and the San’in region, and by 2018 expects to have about a dozen throughout Japan, mainly in the vicinity of regional capitals and not so much in the big three metropolitan areas.

In December, the Japan Light Motor Vehicle and Motorcycle Association estimated that 2.1 million K-cars would be sold in Japan during 2013, a new record. In contrast, sales of all other cars amounted to about 3 million. So while sales of minicars increased by 4.8 percent over 2012, sales of other cars decreased by 5.3 percent.

As a portion of all car sales, Ks increased by 2.4 points to 39.3 percent. The only other automotive sector that showed more growth was foreign (read: German) cars, whose sales increased by 9 percent, also a record. And in terms of production by Japanese automakers, 40 percent are now K-cars.

The obvious reason for the popularity of minicars is their price, but they’ve always been cheap. It’s their reason for existing in the first place. Some say that people bought them last year because the K-car tax is set to be eliminated sometime this year, but a more likely reason is increased safety and functionality.

More than a year ago, Daihatsu started selling a new version of its Move model that uses sensors to automatically reduce speed when it gets too close to the car in front of it. Though it’s offered as an option at ¥50,000, more than 80 percent of the buyers order it. In succession, similar options were added by Suzuki to its popular Wagon R model, for ¥42,000, and by Honda to its N-WGN model.

A Honda representative told Asahi that since 64 percent of K-car drivers are women, this option was incorporated specifically to attract them. A good portion of K-cars are bought as second cars, for shopping and shlepping the kids around. In the past, these women bought compact cars, but they’re switching over to Ks.

Nissan and Daihatsu have upped the ante by also offering windshields that cut ultraviolet rays, something else women demand. In addition, K-cars now have much roomier interiors than in the past and larger cargo areas. In truth, there isn’t much difference, performance-wise, between a K and a standard compact.

Which is why the U.S. is even angrier than before, because that makes the so-called trade barrier even higher to scale. Due to regulations and consumer sentiment, K cars aren’t marketable in America, and the Big 3 automakers aren’t going to manufacture them only for one market, but that could be changing. India seems ravenous for K-cars and Suzuki is quickly setting up factories and joint ventures on the sub-continent.

Some experts say that the U.S. Trade Representative’s gripe about Ks is actually a means of keeping pressure on other sectors, generating leverage to open Japan’s agriculture and insurance markets more, for example. Also, it gives the American government an excuse to maintain its own tariff to protect the U.S. truck market from low-priced Japanese imports.

Government tries to jolt EV sales with charging station subsidies

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

Newspaper ad promoting installation of recharging stations for EVs

Newspaper ad promoting installation of recharging stations for EVs

Norway boasts the highest per capita ownership of electric cars in the world, for a number of interrelated reasons, it seems. The tax on purchases of new cars, all of which are imported, can be more than 100 percent, depending on weight and fuel efficiency, but it’s almost zero for electric cars. The annual automobile tax is about a seventh of the tax burden for a gas-powered vehicle. This savings is apparently enough to offset the higher sticker price of electric cars. According to a friend of ours who is Norwegian, the American Tesla sells for 580,000 kroner, or ¥9.6 million, and there is a six-month waiting list. We asked our friend if there were enough high-speed charging stations in Norway, and he said there are about 4,000, which is not considered enough but he says most people are “satisfied” with charging their EVs at home, where it takes about 8 hours to top them off.

In addition to offering tax breaks, the government promotes EVs by subsidizing the installation of charging stations. EVs do not have to pay road tolls, and they can use lanes that are normally limited to buses and taxis. More significantly, despite the fact that Norway’s wealth is derived from oil, its gas prices are among the highest in the world, twice as much as they are in Japan. So while EVs are very expensive to buy , in the long run they are much more economical thanks to the government.

One of the reasons auto-related taxes are so high in Norway is that the country has no automotive industry to protect. Electric cars are manufactured in Japan and are relatively cheap, but much less popular. At last week’s Tokyo Motor Show, Carlos Ghosn, the CEO of Nissan, which makes the electric Leaf, admitted that EVs weren’t selling as well as expected and that the company’s sales goal of 1.5 million units by 2016 would not be reached.

According to Sankei Biz, EV sales in Japan have picked up slightly in recent months, and as of October 120,000 electric cars have been sold in Japan since they were introduced. About 87,000 of these were made by Nissan. Ghosn says the main reason the target won’t be met is “lack of infrastructure,” meaning lack of charging stations.

In August, Toyota, Nissan, Honda and Mitsubishi announced that they would jointly build more recharging stations throughout Japan to promote electric vehicle sales, with the help of government subsidies, and last week the four automakers agreed on the details of “specific financial assistance” to parties who install charging stations.

Tokyo Shimbun reports that at present there are 1,900 quick charging stations in Japan and about 3,500 normal charging stations. The government will provide subsidies of up to ¥1.7 million to businesses that install quick recharging stations on their properties and ¥400,000 to businesses that install normal recharging stations. The government’s aim is to increase the number of quick stations by 4,000 and normal stations by 8,000, though no timeline has been given.

These subsidies are being offered through both the central government and local governments. Maintenance of the stations will also be subsidized for a limited time. If the business is a convenience store, it has to have parking for at least ten cars, and if it’s a gas station it has to be open 24 hours. Applications for the subsidy, however, will only be taken until February of next year.

Blood on the tracks: Who pays for deadly railway accidents?

Friday, October 18th, 2013

Don't look now

Don’t look now

One of Japan’s enduring urban legends is that railway companies demand compensation from families of people who commit suicide by throwing themselves in front of trains. Because the media doesn’t report such matters it isn’t easy to verify, but according to the Chunichi Shimbun railways “in principle” send bills to families of people who die in railroad “accidents” if the railroad is not at fault and the accident causes a delay that costs the railway money. The articles don’t say anything specific about suicides, however.

The subject of the piece is a case that was recently decided in Nagoya District Court. JR Tokai sued the family of a 91-year-old man from Obu City, Aichi Prefecture, who was hit by a train and killed while walking along the tracks of the Tokaido line in December 2007. JR Tokai was demanding ¥7.2 million from the family for losses incurred due to delays caused by the accident, which affected 27,000 passengers and 34 trains, forcing the railroad to provide alternate transportation, such as buses, to inconvenienced customers.

In court, JR Tokai’s lawyers said the company sent a bill to the family of the man “as it usually does in such matters,” but the family never responded, so they filed a lawsuit and in the end the judge awarded JR the full amount it asked for. The family will appeal.

At issue was the responsibility of the family in the actions of the old man, who suffered from dementia. Six years ago local welfare officials determined that the man required 24-hour supervision. The family placed him in an institution several days a week, but on the remaining days he was at home with his 85-year-old wife, who can mostly fend for herself. In addition, the man’s eldest son, who lives in Yokohama, set up a care system for his father that included his wife regularly traveling to Obu to help out. On the day the accident happened he was alone with his wife, who dozed off, and he wandered out of the house and to the nearest station where he somehow ended up on the tracks.

Chunichi says there is no precedent for a railway company suing over an accident caused by a person with dementia, and the lawyer for the family said that the case could have serious repercussions for families with elderly members who have serious cognitive disabilities, since it means they could be liable for all sorts of incidents, and not just those involving trains.

In court the family said that JR Tokai should bear some of the responsibility since it didn’t prevent the man from getting on the tracks after he entered the station (presumably without a ticket, which raises another question). JR countered by saying it had “fulfilled all our legal obligations” with regard to track safety, and the judge agreed, adding that it was the responsibility of the family to monitor and supervise the actions of the old man.

But if families are monetarily liable for actions carried out by members who are senile, can they also be liable for members who are suicides? So far there doesn’t seem to be a court precedent for such a situation. It seems to depend on the circumstances, suicide or not.

For instance, recently a 40-year-old woman was killed trying to help an old man who stumbled trying to cross the tracks of the JR Yokohama Line. The old man survived, but there has been no report that JR East is demanding he pay up, maybe because the media reports on the heroism of the woman drowned it out or made the company think twice about possible negative publicity if it made such a demand in this case.

Then again, earlier this week a 47-year-old man was killed while crossing the tracks of the Tobu Tojo Line in Tokyo’s Itabashi Ward. Witnesses say he was walking and absorbed in his cell phone when he was hit and didn’t notice the train, though obviously he had enough presence of mind to go through the gates, which were down. Now that guy’s family will probably receive a bill.

The sky becomes less of a limit for cabin attendants (unless you’re a man)

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

Screen shot of ANA's new Airline School, which opens in October

Screen shot of ANA’s new Airline School, which opens in October

All Nippon Airways just announced a new hiring policy for cabin attendants (CA). Starting next year, new CAs will be full-time regular employees of the company. Since 1995, CAs at the company were hired as contract workers who could opt to become regular employees after three years. The reason for the change is tougher competition from low-cost carriers (LCCs). ANA says in order to ensure the best service for their patrons they want to offer flight attendants better employment security. Currently, ANA employs about 6,000 CAs, 1,600 of which are contract workers. Next year, if these 1,600 want to become regular employees they can. The company plans to hire 450 new CAs in 2014.

The contract system was adopted by both ANA and Japan Airlines (JAL) in the same year, when the bubble economy had ended and Japan was entering its long period of sluggish growth. The object was to keep personnel costs in check. JAL says it has no intention of abandoning its contract work system “for the time being.” Twenty percent of its 3,800 Japanese CAs are contract workers. LCCs Peach and Jetstar only hire CAs as contract workers, while Skymark offers its contract CAs regular employment after one year. Though ANA’s policy change means its personnel costs will rise, the company thinks it can offset these expenses with reduced training costs.

Presently, when an ANA CA’s contract expires, she is offered full-time employment, but she can also opt for another 3-year contract. Over the years, 80 percent of ANA’s CAs chose regular employment. Contract workers are paid by the hour, and during the initial training period the wage is less than ¥1,000. That goes up to about ¥1,200 an hour until the end of the contract. JAL pays even less, about ¥1,100. Typically, a cabin attendant earns about ¥2 million a year while she is a contract worker, which isn’t much but CAs, even contractors, have some perks, like access to inexpensive company housing. However, the difference between contract workers and regular workers is striking. In 2001, the average yearly pay for CAs in Japan was ¥6.79 million, reflecting the fact that their ranks were still dominated by full-time regular employees. By 2011 the average salary had dropped to ¥3.85 million, reflecting the dominance of contract workers and newer regular employees rather than veterans who make more due to seniority. Last year it was about ¥4.8 million.

Another factor that influences pay is employment longevity. On average, Japanese CAs remain in the business for 7.4 years, and their average age is 31.2. In the past, it was the most coveted job for women in Japan, though not necessarily for career reasons. It was considered a glamorous occupation during a time when Japan was still isolated from the world, and thus offered women the only chance for overseas travel. (It was also the best way to put one’s English language skills to use. At one time, all English conversation schools has special classes for aspiring flight attendants.) Also, it was considered the best way to find a good husband, since sutchi (stewardesses) were also coveted as wives by eligible bachelors.

It was something of a joke in the 60s and 70s that professional baseball players and sumo wrestlers married either TV announcers or JAL cabin attendants. That may explain why the average age remains low: few CAs continued to work after they married, and if they did they usually tried to get transferred to the position of “ground hostess,” which is even more glamorous since there are so few of them. Also, while both regular employees and contract workers can take maternity leave, only regular employees can ask for shorter hours after they return to work. Tokyo Shimbun says that 10 percent of contract workers quit before their option to become regular employees comes up and one of the main reasons is that they become pregnant.

There’s little doubt that management has a certain image of what CAs should be. Only 1 percent of CAs in Japanese airlines are men. Though it’s against the law to discriminate in terms of gender, it seems obvious that airlines hire women predominately, and Japanese men who want to become CAs know this. According to an article in Newsweek, European and Middle Eastern airlines actively recruit Japanese male cabin attendants. Of the Japanese CAs who work for European and Middle Eastern airlines, 10 percent are men. In Asia, the portion is the same as it is in Japan.

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