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Fri 18 Jun 2010 04:00 AM

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A taste of Tokyo

Why the Japanese capital has whet the appetite of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways in the Middle East.

A taste of Tokyo
Etihad celebrates the launch of its flights to Tokyo.
A taste of Tokyo
Emirates delegation greeted on arrival in Narita.
A taste of Tokyo
Emirates EK318 was welcomed at Narita International Airport with a traditional water canon ceremony.
A taste of Tokyo
Passengers and staff at Doha International Airport ahead of Qatar Airways’ inaugural flight to Tokyo.

Why the Japanese capital has whet the appetite of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways in the Middle East.

Described as one of the three "command centres" for the world economy, Tokyo has featured on the wish-list of numerous airlines in the Middle East for several years now. Unfortunately, with space restrictions at Narita International Airport and limited Air Transport Agreements (ATA) between the Japanese government and its Gulf counterparts, the likes of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways have traditionally struggled to launch their flights to the global metropolis. However, the expansion of Narita airport's second runway in October 2009 worked in favour of bilateral negotiations, with an extra 20,000 flight slots being allocated to several countries around the world, including the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

Unsurprisingly, the news was welcomed with open arms by the UAE, as the launch of routes to Japan would capitalise on booming trade volumes between the two countries, which currently sits at around US$27 billion a year. In addition, more than 350 Japanese companies are operating in the UAE and approximately 3500 Japanese expatriates are living in the emirates.

The country's flight allocations were shared between Emirates and Etihad, with the latter being the first to commence non-stop flights to Tokyo from its home base in Abu Dhabi. Its inaugural flight departed on 27th March 2010 and landed at Narita airport the following day.

"Tokyo is a very important route for Etihad Airways," James Hogan, CEO of Etihad Airways, told Aviation Business. "The opening of this route is yet another important milestone that signifies the strong social, economic, cultural and political relationships between the UAE and Japan. Our objective is to play an active role in developing the growth of travel and tourism between the two countries wherever possible."

The airline is operating five non-stop flights per week to Tokyo, which are operated by three-class Airbus A330-200. The aircraft have been equipped with in-flight services dedicated to the Japanese market, including a tailored menu, local IFE content and Japanese speakers and nationals within the cabin crew. "Our Airbus A330-200 aircraft has ten seats in diamond first class, 24 seats in pearl business class, and 160 seats in coral economy class," he adds. "At this stage we have no plans to alter our fleet for this route. However, like all destinations, if demand increases significantly we will look at additional capacity."

Hogan is keen to build a steady stream of traffic throughout the year and has already noticed significant volumes between Tokyo and Istanbul, Doha and Abu Dhabi, which he expects to be constant throughout the year. "We are confident about receiving a strong interest on this route. Our current bookings have indicated a high demand from premium travellers, in particular business passengers. We also believe the increasing number of high profile attractions in Abu Dhabi will be very attractive to Japanese leisure travellers," he states.

While Etihad was the first Middle Eastern airline to operate to the Japanese capital, Emirates was not far behind, with its inaugural flight being received with a water canon ceremony at Narita airport on 28th March. "It was always our intention to operate non-stop between Dubai and Tokyo and that day has now arrived," explains Richard Jewsbury, senior vice president of Emirates' commercial operations in the Far East and Australasia. "We have already seen robust demand for the flights, following the announcement that we would be beginning our service, and this demand has remained since launch day. As a result, our seat load factor is expected to be over 80% in the first year and we would say that 70% of our passengers will be travelling in the economy cabin with the rest in the premium cabins."

Unlike the Airbus A330-200s being used by Etihad, Emirates is serving the route with its Boeing 777-300ER, which includes eight private suites in first class, 42 flat-bed seats in business class and 304 economy class seats. Jewsbury is not only confident about the success of this route for Emirates, but also the potential to expand its services to Japan in the future. "We have been operating to Japan since 2002 and understand the Japanese customer. The Emirates brand is well-known in the country and our service is appreciated by Japanese travellers," he explains.
"Our research shows there is sufficient demand for not only this new route, but the evidence suggests that we can definitely increase the frequencies. There is also the demand to sustain our Osaka-Dubai route, which enjoys independent traffic from the various regions in East, Middle and West Japan. We look forward to building on our partnership with the Japanese government and hope that Emirates will be granted more flights to Tokyo and other destinations in Japan in the near future."

The potential market for Osaka and Tokyo flights has also been realised by Qatar Airways, which fulfilled its long-standing ambitions to fly to Japan's capital city on 26th April 2010, when its first QR802 flight touched down at Tokyo's Narita International Airport. The addition of Tokyo marks the airline's second destination in Japan, with the carrier already serving Osaka.

"This is a momentous occasion and Tokyo is certain to become a popular route on our ever growing network. With a large awareness of Qatar and Qatar Airways in the Tokyo market already, our flights introduced with full loads. We launched at an auspicious time in the Japanese calendar with our first flights coinciding with Golden Week, the biggest holiday period in Japan," explains Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways.

The new flights strengthen the relationship between Qatar and Japan, with both countries having close bilateral ties and enjoying growing trade. Qatar traded US$26.23 billion worth of oil, gas and other exports with Japan in 2008, contributing 11% of Japan's total crude oil imports and almost 12% of Japan's liquefied natural gas imports. In addition, there are currently over 30 Japanese companies operating in Qatar, with the Japanese community in Doha growing from less than 200 members six years ago to over 1100 in 2009.

"Tokyo has been on our radar for several years, although there was previously a lack of accessibility into Narita and we were unable to operate any services," continues Al Baker. "The completed extension at Narita Airport has opened the door for more carriers to serve the Tokyo market. We immediately seized the opportunity and we are now the only Middle East-based carrier operating daily flights to Tokyo."

Qatar Airways serves Tokyo using an Airbus A330 in a three-class configuration, with 12 first class, 18 business class and 208 economy class seats. "We offer more convenience for passengers as opposed to airlines offering only five services a week," says Al Baker. "The daily service enables passengers to travel when it suits them, not when it suits the airline."

The airline expects to transport a combination of passengers on the route, with group traffic making up about 50% of the contribution, heading to popular Japanese holiday destinations across North Africa and Europe. It also expects considerable numbers of business traffic to the Gulf region, as there are many Japanese companies with operations not only in Qatar, but in other parts of the Middle East.

"With Narita's expansion, as well as Haneda opening up an international terminal later in the year, there is significant additional capacity in Tokyo with many airlines looking to capitalise on these upgraded facilities," comments Al Baker.

Future route development in Japan will happen in due course, he concludes, although in the meantime, Qatar Airways will look to enhance its existing operations to Osaka and Tokyo in order for the airline to offer the best service and convenience possible. "With close to 130 million people in the country, and one of the largest economies in the world, Japan presents exciting prospects for Qatar Airways and we look forward to strengthening our operations to this dynamic country."

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