By Assunta Ng
Northwest Asian Weekly
When Japan Airlines (JAL) ended its Seattle flight in 1992, most people assumed it had more to do with JAL. Now that JAL has resumed its Seattle flight, the story unfolds a different reality — it has more to do with Seattle.
What happened to Seattle during the past 27 years is unimaginable. Its transformation evolves into a golden opportunity of global markets. Even baseball player Ichiro has played a role in shaping Seattle’s destiny. Starbucks, Costco, Microsoft, Alaska Airlines, and Amazon, all headquartered here, lift up Seattle as an innovative city. It has become the desire of many international companies seeking growth, to be part of the Seattle dream.
When JAL left the city, Seattle’s economy was experiencing a recession. Its population was about half a million. Now one of the fastest growing cities in the United States, Seattle’s population exceeds 750,000, and its unemployment rate is around 3 percent.
For the past decade, Seattle’s exciting image lures not only JAL back, but other international airlines, which now fly nonstop from Seattle to other Asian countries for the first time in their history in 2019.
Kosei Yamada, JAL Vice President for the Northwestern region, said the company started thinking about coming back five or six years ago.
“Well, Amazon is here. We like to go where our competitors go.”
“Tokyo is Seattle’s second largest international market, and is a strong destination for both business and leisure travelers,” said Port of Seattle Commissioner Ryan Calkins in a news release.
JAL began its inaugural Seattle-to-Tokyo nonstop flight on Mar. 31 with much fanfare.
Allyson Nakayama was on that sold-out flight with her family of six — they received commemorative gifts, including a boarding certificate.
Her family members enjoyed the red-carpet treatment. This was Nakayama’s second trip to Japan. She said the fare was also much lower at $1,000 for economy class, compared to her last trip, which cost her $2,000.
How airlines’ strategies change
In the past, JAL didn’t make money on the Seattle flight, so they suspended it, according to Yamada. The aircraft then was not built to fly longer distances. It had to stop in Seattle before connecting to other cities, he explained.
Now, the aircraft Dreamliner 787 has improved so JAL can fly much further, including nonstop flights from Japan to San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Boston, and Chicago.
Then, JAL was connecting from one city to another in the old days. The days of two-stop routes are over. Now, JAL is connecting from one hub to another. That becomes the key not only for survival, but prosperity for international airlines.
“JAL is totally different now,” said Kazue Ishiwata, a senior manager for Sea-Tac Airport. JAL is now connecting traffic… domestically, as well as internationally. Once passengers arrive in Tokyo, JAL can connect them to other cities in Asia. Also, JAL flies passengers from Japan, and connects them to other American cities through partnerships with U.S. carriers. JAL has teamed with a big partner Alaska Airlines, and a small one with American Airlines.
Today, only a third of JAL customers choose Seattle as a destination, said Ishiwata.
Through Sea-Tac Airport, passengers can transfer to other U.S. cities conveniently.
“It’s a new trend,” she said. “One flight of passengers can have as many as 20 connecting points. Many don’t even stop in Seattle.”
That’s why the growth of Sea-Tac Airport has been explosive, like someone taking growth hormone shots. In 2016, international passenger traffic has increased more than 10 percent, and 12 new international carriers are adding flights. About 49.5 million passengers go through Sea-Tac annually. And that number is on the rise. JAL used to have a substantial operation of several employees stationed in Seattle. Now, the JAL Seattle office has only 17 employees, including sales and cargo, with the rest of the work subcontracted. Hiring a large staff is not feasible, said Ishiwata, when JAL has only one flight a day. ”The proper way is to outsource.”
Why Seattle is connected to Japan
Several interesting factors exist, which brings Seattle much closer to Japan. Three years ago, I was shopping in a small town close to Nagasaki, Japan. The shoe salesman asked me, “Where are you from?”
“Seattle,” I replied.
“Ah, Ichiro…,” he smiled. Ichiro first played for the Seattle Mariners and later the New York Yankees and Florida Marlins before going back to the Mariners. He retired recently.
Considered a hero in Japan, Ichiro has made Seattle famous. Ishiwata credited Ichiro for enhancing Seattle’s name recognition. During Ichiro’s era in America, many Japanese tour groups and tourists booked tours in Seattle to see him play.
Historically, Seattle is Japan’s nearest port and gateway to America, compared to other West Coast cities, such as San Francisco and Los Angeles.
As far back as the 1950s, Yamada said, the Japanese traveled through old cruise ships to Seattle to enter the United States. Seattle was also the first stop for Japanese immigrants to pass through immigration. It was no surprise for Seattle to establish sister city relations with Kobe, Japan in 1957. Kobe is the oldest sister city of Seattle.
The Port of Kobe is also the sister port of the Port of Seattle. That relationship has been strengthened over the last six decades. I was one of the 94-member delegation, a record-breaking number then, to join former governor Mike Lowry and former mayor Norm Rice’s delegation to visit Kobe in 1994, celebrating our Kobe-Seattle sister relations for over 35 years.
An innovative city
With all the new and successful businesses headquartered here, the Emerald City is perceived as an innovative city, said Ishiwata. Starbucks has opened over 1,200 stores in Japan. Several successful start-ups have their roots in Seattle and Bellevue, part of the greater Seattle area.
”Seattle is important, and has new ideas and new businesses,” Ishiwata said. “Good coffee and good wine. It gives us a good picture.” And yes, Washington state produces its own wine, and some of them have even beaten the French in international contests.
Yamada said JAL flights are now making money. It averages 180 out of 186 possible passengers for each flight, seven days a week for its nonstop flight to Seattle and vice versa. In the old days, JAL flew the Boeing 747-LR, with a capacity of 380 seats, and the average number of passengers were around 230. That’s good news not only to JAL, but all the parties involved, especially Sea-Tac Airport.
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.