Competition in Japan’s low-cost sector looks set to intensify, with Japan Airlines confirming that it will establish a budget carrier that would operate long haul routes to Europe and North America.

    David Casey from Routesonline explores the growth of LCCs in the country over the past five years.

    Japan Airlines (JAL) announced earlier this year that it plans to set up an LCC to widen its product offer and fight back against competition from budget rivals.

    The airline already has a stake in Jetstar Japan but will establish a standalone LCC. It is understood that the new airline will provide the first low cost flights between Japan and Europe, as well as to the US and other Asian countries.

    It is hoped services will begin before the Olympic and Paralympic Games taking place in Tokyo in 2020.

    Since filing for bankruptcy protection in 2010, Japan Airlines has undergone a period of restructuring designed to boost profits. In its most recent financial results for the 2017 calendar year, operating profit increased 2.5per cent to reach 174.5 billion yen ($1.6 billion).

    LCC growth

    Penetration by LCCs in Japan has been slower than in other Asian countries, with full-service carriers ANA Holdings and JAL largely controlling the market. However, since the arrival of LCCs in 2012, budget operators have been gradually eating into their dominance.

    According to figures from OAG Schedules Analyser, low cost domestic seats accounted for 16.6per cent of the market in 2017, up from 15.3per cent in 2016 and 14.7per cent in 2015.

    International two-way low cost seats make up a larger percentage of the overall market, with a 22.6per cent capacity share last year, compared with 17.7per cent and 12.9per cent in 2016 and 2015 respectively.

    Airline analysis

    ANA is currently in the process of merging Osaka-based Peach Aviation and Tokyo-based Vanilla Air to create Japan’s largest LCC. The integration is expected to complete by March 2020, following which the airline plans to launch medium length international routes.

    “By entering the medium haul LCC competition, at around 2020, Vanilla Air and Peach Aviation will capture demand to/from Asian market place which is showing remarkable growth,” a statement by ANA said.

    Japan Airlines

    “We expect the LCCs to play a role in ANA Group’s growth strategies, while also contributing to Japan’s tourist industry and the revitalisation of Japan’s regions.”

    In the domestic market, where the bullet train offers strong competition, Skymark Airlines is the largest LCC, with almost 8.6 million available seats in 2017. Jetstar Japan ranked second, with nearly 5.5 million, and Solaseed third, with 2.3 million.

    Peach Aviation and Vanilla Air were fourth and fifth respectively, with almost 3.4 million and 1.6 million. However, looking internationally, only one homegrown carrier features in the top five LCCs by capacity to/from Japan.

    The largest serving the country is South Korean airline Jeju Airlines, which had 2.87 million available seats in 2017, according data from OAG Schedules Analyser, Peach Aviation ranked second with 2.44 million, with South Korea-based T’way Air and Jin Air third and fourth respectively, and HNA Group’s Hong Kong-based HK Express fifth.

    Booming tourism

    Figures released by the Japan National Tourism Organization revealed that the country welcomed a record 28.69 million international visitors in 2017, a 19.3per cent increase on the previous year. Japan is targeting 40 million by 2020.

    The top performing markets last year were China (7.36 million) and South Korea (7.14 million), with Taiwan and Hong Kong also performing strongly. The four countries accounted for more than 70per cent of international visitors to Japan overall.

    This tourism growth is reflected in the international routes to/from Japan with the most available capacity.

    There are currently no low cost routes from Japan to Europe, while just AirAsia X and Scoot operate to North America with an Osaka Kansai-Honolulu route. However, that could change in the coming years.

    In addition to JAL’s potential LCC, Norwegian has indicated that it could operate from London to Japan, while Eurowings is seeking to expand its Asia footprint.