It’s perhaps fitting that I’m filing this first Monocolumn from seat 1A on a JAL777 from Haneda to Osaka’s Itami airport just as the airline has announced it will be letting around 7,000 staff go over the next three years. Judging by the smiles, bowing and graceful movements of the crew around the cabin, I can’t tell whether they’ve heard the news yet and are nervously chatting behind the curtain in the galley or have yet to catch the headlines.
Asia’s biggest airline has been on the brink of collapse for some time now and many aviation watchers are surprised that it’s managed to stay in the air this long. At Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s Japan conference in Tokyo this week, much of the discussion centred around whether the airline would seriously bring in a US carrier as an investor – aside from injecting much needed cash, what would they actually do for Japan Airlines?
While potential suitors Delta and American could gain a lot by taking some service and hygiene cues from JAL, Japan’s flag carrier could gain by taking some lessons in the fine art of marketing, American-style. Unlike other airlines that suffer due to poor service, shoddy food and grumpy crew, JAL offers some of the best service in the skies but has done an outstanding job of keeping it a secret from the rest of the world. For decades now, Singapore, Cathay and Thai have built entire campaigns about their gracious, smiling flight attendants and well-connected hubs. More recently Korean has started to do the same. All have managed to build up considerable fan-bases beyond their borders. JAL, however, has focused almost solely on the domestic market, done little to build up a connecting traffic network through Narita airport or made much noise about its frontline staff, who are every bit as polite and attentive as Singapore’s girls. Indeed, when was the last time you can recall a global JAL ad campaign?
As Japan holds its breath to see how Prime Minister Hatoyama’s new government responds to this crisis and whether JAL has the leadership in place to reconfigure the carrier, the good news is that the airline has plenty to work with to make it a contender, not only across the Pacific and throughout Asia but also as a global benchmark for peerless service. In terms of immediate fixes JAL needs to ditch some of its older aircraft (the tired MD-80 series aircraft should be replaced by Mitsubishi’s sexy new regional jet – offering a boost to the country’s aviation sector while also bringing a more environmentally friendly aircraft online), rethink its long-haul network and schedule (why the carrier doesn’t use the fast flying time between Europe and Australia via Tokyo to compete against the southeast Asian hubs is a missed opportunity) and start marketing itself to become a global rather than domestic brand.
In a nod to 1970s-style airline marketing JAL recently commissioned composer David Foster to pen a schmaltzy theme song for the airline that is so pitch perfect and commercially catchy it should have had passengers around the world humming the lyrics and putting JAL top of mind. Unfortunately, the song is buried on the airline’s website and has never become core to its marketing message. JAL management might want to turn the big, breathy ballad into their new rallying cry.