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Early retiring Japan Airlines pilots could reshape Japan’s airline industry


Every setback opens new opportunities. The early retirement of a substantial number of Japan Airlines’ (JAL) pilots this year under the airline’s restructuring plan could change the landscape of the air transport industry in Japan. Japanese cockpit crew have always been in short supply and many carriers have had to hire non-Japanese crew on contracts. This was especially the case for the “newcomer” airlines that have started flying in Japan in the past 12 years or so. It has been a major barrier to entry.

So a new supply of qualified pilots could be a big gain for:

  1. All Nippon Airways, now poised on a major expansion;
  2. The “newcomer” airlines already flying and anxious to expand; and,
  3. Would-be new entrant and low cost carrier (LCC) start-ups in future. Hiring early retirees has parallels elsewhere in the world. For example Virgin Atlantic, Ryanair and easyJet all benefited when British Airways laid off many of its experienced pilots.

Training pilots to commercial airline standards is costly and takes time. A ready supply of qualified crew – holding licences issued by the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB) – is a chance that some airlines (and would-be airlines) in Japan will not want to miss. Some aircraft type rating transitional training might be required, but that is a relatively inexpensive procedure for pilots already qualified and with commercial airline experience.

However, many of JAL’s senior pilots have sole experience on the previously prestigious B747, as JAL has a direct career path to first officer on the four engine B747s. The carrier still has 37 Boeing B747-400s in service, but has said it will retire all of these within the next two years. There are no other B747 operators in Japan except cargo carrier, NCA.

This will make the restructuring interesting, to estimate which of the more readily adaptable JAL Group cockpit crew with B737, B767 and B777 twin engine experience will feel it better to take the voluntary package.

More than 1,500 captains now flying for Japan Airlines International, the main company in the JAL Group, and 800 first officers aged 35 or older are eligible to apply for voluntary early retirement programme. The closing date for applications is the end of May-2010. It is not clear yet how many pilots will take the offer.

It is unlikely that much will be said in public on this topic in the near future, but some JAL competitors are thought to be making plans to approach JAL crew members who may take the early retirement programme.

This sort of opportunity with such a scarce resource as experienced pilots does not come often in Japan and, as JAL is forced to cut back on costs, the timing for new entry or expansion is ideal.

(From Geoffrey Tudor, Principal Analyst, Japan Aviation Management Research, Tokyo, with CAPA)

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