The airline world is abuzz with rumors about the possible bankruptcy or outright failure of Japan Airlines - JAL. Will the Japanese government rescue JAL for the fourth time in the past decade, to offset its massive losses? Will Delta Air Lines and the SkyTeam alliance lure JAL from the oneworld alliance to SkyTeam for a cool $1 billion? Will JAL opt for a $1.4 billion investment and code-share offer from oneworld's American Airlines and British Airways?
No one knows for sure what shape a reconfigured JAL could take in the weeks and months ahead. The only certainty is that it will be a very different airline, probably a smaller one. If U.S. or other foreign carriers buy into JAL, the airline will be useful to them mainly as a conduit to the rest of Asia, where civil aviation is still growing, despite the global economic downturn.
JAL, industry observers say, expanded too fast, ran with too much overhead and carries huge debt from borrowing and substantial pension obligations. Tackling all these issues will be paramount, no matter what future form this very good airline takes, or who is at the controls.
Make no mistake, JAL is a very good airline, indeed.
It recently came first in a flightstats.com survey of global airline on-time performance, just ahead of its Japanese rival, Al Nippon Airways, and Scandinavian Airlines, which came third.
Statistics aside, flying with JAL is just a very pleasant experience. I flew with JAL in April 2009, on a trip my wife and I took mainly to see Japan's justly famous cherry blossoms (the sakura). We loved seeing Tokyo's Imperial Palace, its moat lined with pink and white sakura, some branches bowing low over the water before the palace's massive stone walls. In Kyoto, the cherry blossoms softened city parks and lined the Philosophers' Walk, a narrow macadam path in central Kyoto that runs alongside a limpid stream.
Back in Tokyo, I whisked through security at Narita airport for my return flight in less than 10 minutes - a big improvement from the glacial lines I have at times endured at Narita. The JAL Sakura Lounge is one of the best I have seen anyhwere in the world, graced with lovely food, a full-bar, smoking and non-smoking sections, even a cell phone-free zone. Want to sip a beer? An automatic dispenser tilts the glass, to minimize the suds. The lounge is expansive and washed with natural light and spreads out over two levels.
Returning home in JAL business class, Japanese polish and refinement were everywhere evident. The cabin crew were gracious, the food was good, accompanied by pleasantly flowery, chilled sake. Flat-bed seats inside hard plastic shells assured privacy even as they provided much-needed rest. Lunch came in a lacquer bento box accompanied by steaming green tea. The in-flight entertainment system was on the blink for part of my flight, but that was the only glitch on a 8 hour 45 minute flight to San Francisco International Airport.
Most passengers don't know it, but JAL is an industry leader in environmental measures. The carrier has reduced its carbon emissions by 20 percent since 1990, according to Yasuroi Abe, JAL's vice president for environmental affairs. This has been done, Abe told me in an interview at JAL's central-Tokyo headquarters, by flying smaller, lighter planes, flying newer planes, even reducing weight by using lighter dishware in first- and business-class, and less paint on the outside of its 270 aircraft. In January 2009, JAL ran one engine on experimental bio-fuel during a successful test flight. Like many airlines, it hopes to come up with an environmentally friendly, affordable alternative to petroleum.
Will this accomplished airline - Japan's erstwhile national flag carrier, privatized in 1987 - survive in recognizable form? I hope so. Now, we wait.