Japan planes versus trains debate

Japan planes versus trains debate

Japan's main airline carriers face a constant struggle when vying for international routes. Local success is equally all-important. But the most significant threat these carriers are currently facing doesn't come from other companies. It is coming from ground-level.

It is the ever-evolving bullet trains, known as shinkansen, that are really causing headaches for the airline carrier marketing teams. In fact, one Japan Airlines executive officer was completely taken aback during a routine domestic route marketing trip. After taking his seat on a bullet train, the first thing Tadao Nishio noticed was there was no sign of the train rocking sideways as they were once known to do. His experience was one of dizzying speeds coupled with supreme comfort, exactly the combination that the airline carriers so desperately strive for. If Japan's travelers become familiar with fast, smooth, hassle-free train journeys, then there will be fewer of them queuing for plane tickets.

The revolution in train design is not the sole issue dreaded by the airline companies. Nozomi services have increased between Tokyo and Osaka, in the wake of the expansion of Shin-Oasaka Station this March. Bullet train networks now extend to every corner of the country, including Kyushu, Hokkaido and Hokuriku.

Evidence of the increase in the train popularity can be gauged by considering this. 10 years ago, a shinkansen shop opened in Shinagawa, Tokyo. The Nozomi service increased dramatically. 60% of the travelers on the Tokyo to Hiroshima line used to fly the route. This trend has reversed, with 60% choosing the bullet train.

A theory that is commonly used to gauge whether any traveler is liable to choose the train or the plane is a simple one. If the trip is going to be under three hours, then the train is chosen. However, with the bullet trains revving up their speed all the time, journey times are increasingly being chipped away. In March, Tohoku Shinkansen cut the Tokyo to Shin-Aomori route to under that three-hour mark.

Japan Airlines has recently seen its revenue from domestic routes easing to just 70% of their 2006 peak. This represents a loss of around ¥200 billion. Much of these losses were blamed on service cuts in the wake of the carrier's bankruptcy. But the company, perhaps grudgingly, also admit that the bullet trains have been swallowing up much of their customer base.