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Tuesday, May 9, 2006

Startup carrier for Kansai airport still only in pie in the sky stage


Staff writer

OSAKA -- Moments after takeoff, passengers on "Air Kansai" watch two flight attendants explain the safety procedures in rapid-fire Osaka "manzai" comic dialogue.

As the cabin roars with laughter over the part about stowing your baggage in the overhead compartment, a third attendant, dressed like a Kyoto geisha, reminds economy-class passengers that the in-flight menu consists of "takoyaki" (octopus dumplings) or "okonimiyaki" (cabbage pancakes). Only business-class passengers can choose between traditional Kyoto cuisine or slices of prime Kobe beef.

OK, such in-flight service is never likely to fly.

But the idea of a startup airline based at Kansai International Airport and serving domestic and international routes is intriguing to some in the region centering around Osaka who see it as a way to boost flights and promote the area.

In March, New Kitakyushu Airport opened for business after months of aggressively wooing startup airlines in both Japan and Northeast Asia. Officials managed to convince Star Flyer Inc. to base itself at the new airport, where it is operating 12 flights daily to Tokyo's Haneda airport.

A few weeks later, Kansai airport officials, in response to media questions about the new airport and Star Flyer, and whether a Kansai-based airline would be a good idea, indicated a startup carrier was worth considering.

A few Kansai executives have long toyed with the idea of having a startup airline of their own, one based at Kansai airport and serving Tokyo, Kyushu and even international routes, just like locally based airlines in China.

Shanghai Airlines Co. now operates flights to and from Kansai International Airport. Aviation experts see Japan and the Asia-Pacific region as a potential market for growth in localized, lower-cost carriers.

However, the idea of a local airline is still encountering major turbulence, so it's unlikely anyone will be booking flights on "Air Kansai," "Takoyaki Express Air" or the like anytime soon.

"Given the high landing fees and operational costs at Kansai International, as well as the fact that there is intense competition for flights to Tokyo out of the Kansai region's three main airports, it makes no sense for a low-cost carrier to base itself at Kansai International Airport," said one Kansai Economic Federation member, who asked that his name not be used.

Hiroko Nakamura, an Osaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry official who deals with issues related to Kansai airport, said the idea of a low-cost, Kansai-based carrier remains at the "wouldn't-it-be-nice" discussion stage among chamber members.

"The chamber has never commissioned a marketing survey among members on whether a low-cost carrier would take off," she said. "It's not an idea that is being considered seriously."

However, some regular business travelers in the Kansai region said that under the right circumstances a low-cost Kansai-based carrier might fly.

"A low-cost carrier serving Shikoku and the Hokuriku regions could do well," said Eisuke Terada, a manager for a small Osaka trading company that has many customers in Kochi and Ehime prefectures. "Train connections to Shikoku in particular are quite difficult, and the number of flights to most of Shikoku's major cities are limited."

If Terada's idea is ever cleared for takeoff, then perhaps in-flight meals will include Shikoku "udon" noodles and "mikan" oranges from Ehime, and the flight attendants will have to speak not only the various dialects of the Kansai region but also the Tosa dialect of Kochi.

If nothing else, "Air Kansai" flights would become famous for their culinary, and linguistic, diversity.



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