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Saturday, April 21, 2012

JAPAN LITE

Kansai's new budget airline offers juicy savings


On March 1, the first flight of All Nippon Airways' new low-cost carrier, Peach Aviation Ltd., was launched. Yes, now we know that fruit can fly. This may bring on a whole slew of flying fruit — flying bananas, pineapples, and even low-budget strawberries.

You never could have named an airline after a peach where I come from, mainly because it never would have gotten approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Believe it or not, fruit transportation is nothing new. In 1961 Roald Dahl established peach travel in his book "James and the Giant Peach." James floated inside his peach through the English Channel and out into the Atlantic Ocean. From there, with the aid of hundreds of seagulls, he flew the giant peach through the air to New York City. And in the Japanese "Momotaro" folk story, the "Peach Boy" was named so because he was born from a peach. An old lady had found the peach bobbing down the river and when she took it home, a baby boy popped out. (I'm holding out for this kind of child myself — sounds a lot easier than natural childbirth). So historically, we have seen the peach as a vessel for transport down rivers, across oceans, and as a portable womb.

I can hear you telling me, "Rivers and oceans are one thing, but flying peaches? That would be the pits." After all, peaches are a stone fruit, and most people would be more comfortable with a lighter image for flying. Even cling peaches would offer an element of security. All I can say is a peach is better than a lemon.

You do have to wonder why the airline decided to name itself after the peach. The only thing I can surmise is that they were trying to make the other budget airlines look fruitless.

So, why did they choose the name? First, consider that the name was changed from its original — A&F Aviation Co. — which you have to admit, as a name doesn't have a lot going for it. Peach Chief Executive Officer Shinichi Inoue says the airline was named after the peach because it "invokes a youthful, fresh and energetic image." Hmm, everything you've always wanted in an airline.

The Peach CEO also said the airline intends to feature Japanese elements to make the airline different from other low-budget carriers. Their airplanes are painted pink and purple, for example. In particular, he mentioned a "cute and cool" brand image in order to — get this — "attract female travelers." This, apparently, is what he believes will differentiate Peach from other non-fruit budget airlines.

Not to impeach his motives, but I just don't think a pink and purple airplane is going to be enough to get women to climb into it for cheap thrills. Airline safety and peach cobbler on the menu, for example, would be more important to most women.

These youthful, fresh, energetic pink and purple airplanes are Airbus A320-200s, and the first budget airplanes to be based out of Kansai International Airport in Osaka. Domestic flights go from the airport to Sapporo, Fukuoka, Nagasaki and Kagoshima. In March, 67,000 passengers took the fruit transport. They didn't say how many of the passengers were female, but they did report that there were no fruit flies on board.

Peach will be Japan's first budget airline to go overseas when they start flights to Seoul next month. Asked whether they plan any long-haul flights for the future, the Peach CEO said they would focus only on medium- and short-haul flights of up to four hours. I speculate that at four hours of flying, peaches start to ferment. Even longer flights would put the planes in danger of rotting before they arrived.

Such are the pitfalls Peach Aviation must work within. Others are:

1. Less space onboard and more seats. Even more so on a fruit airline, you'll probably have to squeeze into the seats: Cattle class gives way to the new orchard mentality. Piled in on top of each other, you may even find yourself saying, "Excuse me flight attendant, but there's peach fuzz on my seat!"

2. Budget terminals apart from the regular airline terminals. Narita International Airport plans to build a special terminal especially for budget airlines by 2015. One of the ways they will cut costs is by not using boarding bridges for passengers to get on and off the planes. Instead passengers will use boarding ramps, and perhaps even fruit conveyor belts.

3. Cutting down on in-flight services. Despite your love for peaches, don't expect to eat any onboard, nor any other kind of food (unless the airplane starts to ferment, in which case peach schnapps will probably be complimentary). The lack of such in-flight services (mainly meals) is one of the major differences between budget and conventional airlines. Otherwise, they fly the same planes, use the same amount of fuel, and use the same airports. Makes you realize how much those meals were costing us — way more than a seven-course meal at even the most expensive restaurant.

4. Cheaper fares. Peach offers"happy peach" prices that are at least half the fare of regular airline fares. Of course, price is relative in Japan, where fruit is notoriously expensive, especially peaches. Hanayome (bride) peaches, a gift for newlyweds, can go for ¥1,000 each. Nonetheless, the Osaka to Seoul flight starts at ¥5,280, one-way. That makes this flight cheaper than a box of fruit.

I've not heard of any restrictions on peach-birthing in flight, however, so I'm hoping the airline will spawn a new generation of Momotaro-sans. It's high time for the gift of life from the next peach womb — the Peach Girl!



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