ON THE CHEAP: Discount airlines make trip to mainland enticing
Editor's Note: With Christmas break right around the corner, some of you might want to take a trip to the mainland. If so, don't forget about low-cost carriers. Read on and you might find what you are looking for.
You may not be able to fly from Tokyo to Okinawa for as little as 5 yen like 10,000 lucky people recently did, but passengers on the new generation of low-cost carriers (LCCs) in Japan will be able to save some serious coin on discount airlines from Naha Airport to mainland cities.
For decades, high airfares were the rule in Japan. Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA) enjoyed a stranglehold on the industry, setting domestic prices not in competition with each other but with the “shinkansen” bullet train. And for travel to Okinawa, the pricing philosophy seemed to be, “The sky’s the limit.”
This changed in 1998 when Skymark Airlines offered its first flights within mainland Japan. Though airline deregulation started slowly, the past year has seen the introduction of three new LCCs - AirAsia Japan, JetStar Japan and Peach Aviation - all of whom are vying for the business of the cost-conscious customer.
“We want to set our prices at one-third to one-half of what the major airlines are charging,” said Chikako Takiguchi of AirAsia’s marketing/PR department. Saori Adachi of Peach’s PR firm, Edelman Japan, said, “We want to provide cheaper prices than any other airline on any route.”
Maria Kato, Pacific market coordinator for Stars and Stripes, was one of those fortunate passengers who recently flew to Okinawa for the equivalent of about six cents. “I heard news about the LCCs on television and kept watching to see when they would begin flying,” she said.
Kato had to compete with other bargain hunters when AirAsia launched a cheap-ticket campaign to publicize the start of flights from Tokyo’s Narita Airport to Naha in August, but she won. The price was more than right compared to the 21,000 yen to 33,000 yen she would have had to pay if she had purchased a ticket from JAL or ANA. Even the upstart airline’s normal charge, starting from 6,680 yen (about $83) one way, compares well.
Please note though that pricing on discount airlines varies according to the day of the week you travel, with Tuesday to Thursday often offering the cheapest fares, the season and how far in advance you book.
In an era when even the established carriers charge extra for some services, almost everything is a la carte when flying an LCC.
“With AirAsia, there are different add-on charges. For example, if you tell them you want to check a bag or have a meal when you make the reservation, there is one fee, but if you just go to the gate to check a bag or order a meal, it is two or three times the cost,” Kato said.
These are not the only supplementary charges. On an LCC, you may have a pay a fee for making a reservation by telephone or at the airport, rather than over the Internet. Bags may be checked in for free, depending on the class of ticket you purchase, or may incur a charge. You may have to pay a fee to reserve a specific seat or if you sit in a row near the bulkhead that offers more legroom. Snacks and drinks are available for a small charge. The old maxim of “caveat emptor,” or “Let the buyer beware,” is the rule of the day.
LCCs also tend to have fewer flight attendants and are more vulnerable to overbookings, cancellations and delays; they also do not rebook passengers on other carriers or provide accommodations. So “Look before you leap” also seems apt advice.
For those looking to save money, however, the add-ons are of the nickel-and-dime variety, if somewhat annoying. But how are the flights?
“The leather seats were very comfortable. I sat next to the exit door, but they didn’t charge for the extra space. The plane was a new Airbus 320, so there was a lot of room in the overhead compartments,” Kato said.
Though it’s doubtful she will ever fly to Naha for five yen again, Kato would be willing to pay the normal price to fly AirAsia. “It’s cheap, so if I want to go to Okinawa often, I would take (AirAsia),” she said.
This feeling was seconded by passengers who flew another LCC.
Ed Kelin, revenue manager for Stars and Stripes Pacific, turned to a more-established discount airline when his MILAIR flight from Okinawa to Tokyo was suddenly cancelled and he switched to Skymark Airlines.
“If you’ve flown Southwest Airlines, the experience is somewhat similar. Seats were comparable to any other airline I’ve flown, and the legroom was fine. You didn’t feel you were on a discount airline. I’d be happy to fly it again,” he said.
One of his traveling companions, Master Sgt. Brian Norton, 1st Sergeant, Stars and Stripes Pacific, was similarly enthusiastic. “It was a very normal experience. It was just like a normal flight. The seats were comparable to those found on any Japanese airline; the stewardesses were just as professional. I would fly them again.”
Lt. Col. Brian Porter, commander, Stars and Stripes Pacific said, “Without a doubt I would fly them again. If you are tight for time, Skymark is a clean, comfortable alternative, and the price is right. Whether MILAIR cancels on me or I get bumped, it’s a great option in my pocket.”
For the military community on Okinawa, deregulation has resulted in a range of inexpensive options that weren’t available before. If you want to fly to Tokyo’s Narita Airport, AirAsia, JetStar, and Skymark are the airlines for you. But if you prefer landing at more convenient Haneda Airport, also in Tokyo, Skymark has flights there.
Going to the Kansai area near Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe? Why go to Tokyo when you can fly Peach Aviation to Kansai International Airport?
All of these airlines offer connecting flights to other cities in Japan, and AirAsia and Peach can fly you cheaply overseas as well. AirAsia will start flights from Narita to Seoul and Busan in Korea at the end of October, while Peach will take you from Kansai International Airport to Seoul’s Incheon Airport and to Hong Kong, and is scheduled to begin flights to Taipei, Taiwan, at the end of September.
If you want to go off island but cannot wait for or risk Space-A seating, mainland Japan is not as far or as expensive to get to as you think. Join the growing trend toward flying discount airlines and find out why LCC is becoming the most popular acronym in Japan.
Discount Carriers at a glance
* Flies one roundtrip daily between Naha and Narita Internatonal Airport near Tokyo; 6,680 to 23,080 yen
* Also flies from Narita to Sapporo and Fukuoka.
* Starting late October, will launch flights from Narita to Seoul and Busan, Korea
* Tel: 0120-963-516 (8 a.m. – 5 p.m., Mon-Fri)
* URL: www.airasia.com/jp/en/home.page
* Starting Oct. 18, will fly two roundtrips daily between Naha and Osaka (Kansai International Airport); 4,790 to 19,790 yen
* Also flies from Kansai International to Kagoshima, Nagasaki, Sapporo, Hong Kong and Seoul (Incheon)
* Starting Sept. 30, will fly from Osaka to Taipei, Taiwan
* Tel: 0570-064-731
* URL: www.flypeach.com/home.aspx
* Flies twice daily between Naha and Narita International Airport near Tokyo; 9,800 to 15,000 yen, and four to five roundtrips between Naha and Tokyo’s Haneda Airport; 12,800 to 21,800. Fares depend on date of booking
* Also flies from Haneda Airport to cities in Kyushu, Kobe and Sapporo; and from Narita International to cities in Kyushu, Sapporo and Asahikawa, Hokkaido
* Tel: 050-3116-7370 (Japanese only, 9 a.m.-7:30 p.m. daily)
* URL: www.skymark.co.jp/en/
* Flies two roundtrip flights daily from Naha to Narita International Airport near Tokyo; 6.590 to 24,990 yen
* Starting Oct. 28, will fly Naha to Osaka (Kansai International Airport); 4,590 to 14,490 yen
* Also flies from Narita International to Fukuoka, Osaka, and Sapporo
* From Osaka’s Kansai International, flies to Fukuoka and Sapporo
* Offers a best-price guarantee
* Tel: 0120-9347-87 (24 hours daily)
* URL: www.jetstar.com/au/en/home
Note: All prices cited are one way.
See also "10 tips to help you explore Okinawa," and "Main(land) Attractions."