Korean airlines pull back on Japan routes amid trade dispute

31 Jul 2019 by Michael Allen
Korean flag and Japanese flag / istock: Oleksii Liskonih

Several South Korean airlines are reducing services to Japan amid declining demand caused by an ongoing trade dispute between the two countries.

Korean Air said in a short statement on its website that it is suspending flights from Busan to Sapporo, Japan from September 3.

The flights affected are KE 771, a thrice weekly flight which leaves Busan at 9.30am on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, arriving in Sapporo at 11:50am the same day.

The return flight, KE 772, leaves Sapporo at 12:50pm on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and arrives back in Busan at 3:30pm the same day. The flights are operated by an Airbus A220-300.

Korean Air passengers wishing to fly this route beyond September 3 will have to fly to Seoul/Incheon first and then take a flight from Seoul/Incheon to Sapporo. Flights times range from five hours and 55 minutes to eight hours and 10 minutes. The current non-stop flights from Busan to Sapporo now take only around two hours and 30 minutes.

According to Reuters, Korean Air is suspending the flights because of falling demand as a result of a diplomatic row between Korea and Japan. The airline is also considering cutting the number of flights between the two countries or shifting to smaller aircraft from mid-August, the newswire added, citing a Korean Air spokesperson.

Last month, Japan tightened controls of exports of high-tech materials to South Korea, in apparent retaliation for a South Korean court ruling over wartime forced labour, according to Reuters. Such disputes have prompted a widespread boycott of Japanese products and services, from beer to clothes and travel in South Korea.

“We have watched growing competition and overcapacity on the route. With a recent demand drop, we finally confirmed suspension of the flight between Busan and Sapporo,” a Korean Air spokesperson told Business Traveller Asia-Pacific.

The spokesperson added that Korean Air does not yet know what exact smaller aircraft types might be deployed come mid-August, nor has the airline decided where to deploy the A220-300s currently flying the Busan-Sapporo route.

Asiana Airlines A350-900

Asiana Airlines told Reuters on Tuesday that it plans to switch to smaller planes for some of its Japan routes starting September due to declining demand amid a worsening diplomatic and economic row between South Korea and Japan. Asiana does not currently have plans to discontinue any routes to Japan, but it is monitoring the situation, the spokesperson added.

In response to a query from Business Traveller Asia-Pacific, Asiana Airlines said it plans to “operate narrow bodied A321 with 174 seats to three destinations (Fukuoka/Osaka/Sapparo) in Japan from September due to decrease in passenger demand. Other than this, any further change is yet to be planned for the time being.”

According to local newspaper The Korea Times, Asiana Airlines subsidiary Air Seoul is reviewing which of its 11 Korea-Japan routes should be suspended after a drop in demand.

Earlier this month, The Korea Times reported that Jeju Air, Jin Air, T’way Air and other low-cost carriers (LCC) were reeling from a drop in the number of Koreans visiting Japan amid the growing anti-Japan sentiment there.

“The trend will likely accelerate in line with worsening Korea-Japan ties since Tokyo imposed restrictions on exports to Korea of high-tech materials essential for manufacturing chips and display panels, wreaking havoc on budget carriers during the peak summer vacation season,” the newspaper said.

Low-cost carrier Eastar Jet announced on July 9 that it would suspend services from Busan-Sapporo and Busan-Osaka from September 1, according to a statement on its website. The suspension is set to run until October 26 and it is not clear what the airline’s plan is beyond that time.

Eastar Jet open a new route to Japan as recently as June when it announced a new flight between Chungju and Sapporo. It is not clear whether this new flight, scheduled to start on September 3, will still go ahead. Eastar Jet could not immediately be reached for comment.

T’way Air plans to cut four routes – Kumamoto-Daegu, Oita-Busan, Oita-Muan and Saga-Busan – which went into service in November and December last year, according to The Japan Times. An official of the Kumamoto Prefectural Government told the newspaper that T’way Air cited poor demand, worsening bilateral relations between Korea and Japan, as well as a “sluggish South Korean economy”. / / /

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