Many airlines were hit hard by the March 11 disaster and have had to cut back on services to Japan due to low demand. Others have stepped up their campaigns to encourage the public to start traveling again.
Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific, for example, held a special campaign in June and July called “WE LOVE JAPAN” with the aim to support Japan in its recovery effort and revitalize the tourism industry to increase inbound travel from Hong Kong. As part of the campaign, the airline offered 500 free round-trip air tickets from Hong Kong to one of five destinations (Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, Fukuoka or Sapporo), and called on residents in Japan to sign up friends, relatives and colleagues living in Hong Kong they would like to invite to Japan.
Cathay Pacific has been operating in Japan for 52 years and is determined to bounce back following the disaster, says General Manager Simon Large who has been with the airline’s parent company, the Swire Group, for 20 years. Born in Hong Kong, Large was educated in the UK and graduated from the University of Bristol. He has been in his current position for two years.
GaijinPot, together with sister-site Japan Today visits Large in the airline’s offices in Shiodome to hear more about the what the airline is doing and to get a great view of the Rainbow Bridge.
How did the events of March 11 affect business?
Before the quake, we operated 7 flights a day to Hong Kong from the Kanto region (5 from Narita and 2 from Haneda). Since the quake, we are down to 3 from Narita and 2 from Haneda. From Kansai, we still operate three flights a day. We also have services to and from Fukuoka, Nagoya and Sapporo. The situation changes on a weekly basis, when we have had to consolidate flights or cancel others based on weak demand.
What about the Haneda flights?
The Haneda flights are positioning themselves as more business flights. That has come back quickly after the quake, particularly outbound.
How would you describe Cathay Pacific’s image in Japan?
Well, Cathay has been here for 52 years. I think people in Japan see us as a high-quality Hong Kong airline. We’ve been recruiting Japanese crew for almost that entire time. Currently, we have just under 500 Japanese crew, so that, together with our branding, has been a strong way of getting ourselves on the map.
You’re not just selling a seat on a plane, but also a destination, I suppose.
We work very closely with tourism and government authorities to sell Hong Kong a lot but I think it sort of sells itself as a destination. It has been in the top 3 or 4 destinations for Japanese for a long time. One of Cathay’s strengths is that we take a lot of business beyond Hong Kong. It is a popular hub for Australia, Southeast Asia and Europe because some of those destinations have seen decreasing direct services out of Japan for various reasons.
Since March 11, you must get asked a lot by people abroad if Japan is safe to visit. How do you answer them?
In a way, we are all spokespersons for Japan at this time whenever we go abroad or are asked by people overseas if Japan is safe. People are curious to know what the situation is like. My response has always been that it really is normal in Tokyo. Like a lot of other people here, I have been quite amazed by foreign press coverage. I think it has been completely overblown and made some people almost paranoid about coming here.
How successful was the recent “WE LOVE JAPAN” campaign?
We had a lot of interest. We received a lot of applicants for those tickets. Of course, the real benefit will be if we can get 500 good spokespeople to come here and say they had a good time and go back and tell their friends.
How do you market the airline in Japan?
We don’t do much big billboard advertising. We’re increasingly using social media which we are finding quite effective. We do still do some newspaper or magazine advertising when we have something specific we want to promote.
What are some unique factors about the Japanese market?
Using travel agents remains a key and is quite unique to this market. They are still a very important channel in Japan, even though the direct sales route has increased. People trust their travel agent to give the right advice. So our sales staff work very closely with them.
Are online bookings increasing?
Globally, online bookings are increasing a lot but not dramatically in Japan. However, we did see a big leap in online bookings after the earthquake. It changed the buying habits of some people.
Do you have any plans to have the advertised fare include the fuel surcharge?
Not at this time, but it’s an area we have to keep looking at. Fuel surcharges are now at a record high and that’s a concern. We want the fare structure to be transparent and we want people to know what the proportion of the fuel surcharge is.
What trends do you think we’ll see in the airline industry as carriers try to remain competitive?
I think we will see more alliances between airlines in the industry. That will generally be a good thing for customers, particularly in the way they can use their frequent flyer points. There will be more standardization and you won’t have 20 different schemes.
Do you think there will always be a demand for first class?
Yes, I do. On flights where we offer first class, the cabins are often full. We wouldn’t have it otherwise. Now there is a big surge of wealthy clientele coming through from China.
What’s happening with Cathay Pacific’s onboard services?
We just launched a new business class product serving our Australian routes. It will gradually get rolled out in all our long-haul fleet. It’s getting really good reviews. It’s a flat bed seat with great entertainment systems and great food as well.
The new economy class has a shell seat, so you don’t have to worry about the person behind you kicking the seat, which I know is a common complaint among many passengers.
Do your staff need special training when it comes to dealing with difficult passengers?
We do train staff how to deal with unhappy passengers. It is actually more difficult now because of mobile phones. People taking film or photos of staff puts them under a lot of pressure. They are aware that they could be recorded and on the Internet within seconds. They do get a lot of training and I have to say they have become very good at dealing with different situations.
How do you get feedback from passengers?
We get a lot of feedback online and on Facebook. People will post complaints on Facebook, but what I find interesting is that when they do, you’ll get 20 people who answer them on your behalf. So that’s great.
As general manager for Japan, what do you focus on?
I look after 320 people here in Japan. There are six cities that we fly into (seven airports). I look at a lot of personnel issues, if we have the right team to take us forward in the future. In the last few months, there have been a lot of operational issues, keeping me busy.
Do you travel much?
I fly a couple of times a month, around Japan and once a month to Hong Kong. It gives me a chance to catch up with our team at Narita and Haneda. I fly in business class sometimes, and economy quite regularly. I have a family and when it comes to personal travel, I buy my own tickets.
How do you like to relax?
I’ve got three fairly small kids who keep me occupied on weekends. I love bicycling around Tokyo’s back streets and seeing sides of Tokyo you often wouldn’t see.
Editor’s Note: The following questions were submitted by Inter FM radio personality Kamasami Kong.
Why should we choose Cathay?
We’ve got a great schedule to Hong Kong out of Japan. You’ll get some great service, and for our Japanese passengers, Japanese-speaking staff in flight.
The ads on CNN show a young James Bond guy flirting with a flight attendant. Are your flight attendants really that lovely?
You have to fly to find out. My impression is yes.
How do you feel when you see those ads on TV?
I think they do a good job in demonstrating the product and they also give a sense of the service style that Cathay is aiming for, which is friendly and natural.
Can you tell us about some of those gadgets and gizmos in the business class seats?
Those seats are flat beds. The tech involved in the TVs and way you plug your iPhone and computer is the most up-to-date. We also have some limited Internet access now.
Please describe the first class experience.
It is an amazing experience. I was very lucky recently and had the chance to fly from here to Hong Kong in first class. I can honestly say that when I arrived in Hong Kong, I didn’t want to get off the plane. It all starts with attentive service. Then you have very sizable seats. The food is like going to a Michelin-star restaurant. You have a huge range of films to choose from and a huge TV in the seat.
What does the logo on the tail represent?
It’s a stylized bird which we call the brush wing. It’s a style of calligraphy.
Photo credit: Hideyuki KAMON / Flickr