7 of 8 Korean airlines cut flights to Japan

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7 of 8 Korean airlines cut flights to Japan

Almost every airline in Korea has introduced plans to suspend or reduce the frequency of flights to Japan, with Korean Air’s low-cost arm Jin Air hopping on board on Thursday.

Air Seoul, a budget airline under Asiana Airlines that takes roughly half of its revenue from Japanese routes, is the only one of the eight commercial airlines operating in Korea that has yet to confirm its plans. A spokesperson from Air Seoul said it has plans to reduce flight frequency but what routes will be affected is still up in the air.

“Our plan will be confirmed at the end of this week, and an announcement will likely be made on Monday,” the spokesperson added.

According to Jin Air, it is removing a total of 53 flights across its nine routes that connect either Incheon or Busan with Japanese airports. The first route to be affected is between Busan and Osaka. While Jin Air currently operates 14 flights a week, frequency will be halved from Aug. 19 through Oct. 26.

Among the six affected routes departing from Incheon, Incheon to Fukuoka and Incheon to Kitakyushu flights will be affected first, from Aug. 26 through Oct. 26. Jin Air has been operating Incheon to Fukuoka flights 28 times per week, or four times per day, but from Aug. 26 that will fall to 18 times a week. For the Incheon to Kitakyushu flight, the frequency will be cut from twice per day to once per day.

Considering that Jin Air operates a total of 34 routes including four domestic routes, it is adjusting schedules on roughly one-quarter of its routes.

Low-cost carriers (LCCs) like Jin Air have been dependent on Japanese routes because they are unable to operate on long-haul routes. Of the 11.2 million people that traveled from Korea to Japan during the early half of this year, LCCs carried 58.3 percent of passengers, and 33 percent flew with full-service carriers. The remaining 8.7 percent flew with non-Korean airlines.

During the same period, LCCs were responsible for only 8.2 percent of travel to China and 33.3 percent of passengers traveling to other Asian countries.

“We will likely develop more routes to China and Southeast Asia to diversify our business,” a source from the industry said.

In the past, LCCs have been unable to fly much to China, despite the relatively short distance, because they didn’t have the rights. However, new traffic rights for a total of 174 flights per week were distributed to local airlines in May. As a result, new routes to China will likely be unveiled soon based on the newly distributed licenses.

T’way Air announced earlier this month that it will start operating flights connecting Daegu with China’s Zhangjiajie and Yanji from September. As it has won rights to operate on other routes to China, including flights connecting Incheon with Beijing, Shenyang and Wuhan, it is working on putting them into service as well.

Eastar Jet already started operating its daily Incheon-Shanghai route on July 12. It is preparing to open up new Chinese routes at the end of August or in September. The likely routes will be between Incheon and Zheongzhou and Cheongju and Zhangjiajie.

“I think the LCCs are moving to trim down Japanese routes as soon as possible and focus on opening new Chinese routes because that is the most realistic alternative for us right now,” a spokesperson for Eastar Jet said.

“We have been suffering from overcompetition on Japanese routes since local airlines focused on increasing services after the Thaad-related diplomatic row with China several years ago … now we are focusing on increasing flights to China,” an LCC source said.

As flights and travelers to Japan continue to shrink, officials from Japanese local governments are approaching Korean airlines, especially LCCs, and asking for support.

Officials from three Japanese prefectures - Kagawa, Tottori and Toyama - visited Air Seoul last month asking the airline to reconsider flight schedule adjustments.

Officials from other prefectures also reportedly visited Eastar Jet, T’way Air, Air Busan and Jin Air. Despite the talks, however, the airlines went ahead with cutting flights, mainly due to falling demand.

According to data from the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport, outbound travelers to Japan from July 16 through July 30 shrank by 13.4 percent to 467,249 people compared to between June 16 through June 30.

BY KIM JEE-HEE [kim.jeehee@joongang.co.kr]
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