Sunday, October 31, 2010

Back to the Future with JAL

The best recent news for Japanophiles may be the recent makeover at Tokyo's Haneda International Airport, which now sports a fourth runway and new international terminal. Both of Japan's major airlines, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, are switching some of their long-haul international flights from far-off Narita International to Haneda, which was Tokyo's premier airport before Narita opened in the late 1970s.

In line with this, Japan Airlines yesterday launched a daily nonstop flight between San Francisco International Airport and Haneda. This was a case of back to the future for JAL, which flew its first trans-Pacific flight ever, JAL 001, from Haneda to SFO back in 1954. The plane, a Douglas DC 6 propeller-driven aircraft, made stops in the Fiji Islands and Honolulu and carried just 18 passengers.

Today's JAL - reorganizing in bankruptcy protection but continuing to innovate and launch new initiatives - still calls its Haneda-SFO flight JAL 001. It's non-stop and jet-propelled now, of course, and the journey is made on a Boeing 777-200 ER, according to JAL's Michiko Kumataka. I didn't count the number of passengers at the launch ceremony at SFO yesterday - though nearly all the men there lined up to have photos and videos of themselves with comely female flight attendants wearing uniforms from JAL's past - but I wager it was a few more than 18.

Probably the best thing about flying into Haneda - in addition to its recently acquired modernity - is its location. In contrast with Narita, where highway traffic can slow the otherwise estimable Airport Limousine bus to a 2-hour crawl, and even rail service takes a while - travelers are much closer to the city center. Reconfigured route networks will also put people flying to and from China, Korea, Singapore and other parts of Japan in Haneda airport.

At SFO's Gate A7 last night, Japan's new consul general in San Francisco cut a red ribbon with oversized scissors to officially launch the flight. At about the same time - over by a temporary table adorned with soft drinks, juice and white frosted cupcakes with "JAL New Haneda'' written on the top - JAL's Douglas Shelton told me travelers will be able to access the nearest JR station for transit to the city center in about 13 minutes.

All this gives the old airport a new lease on life.

Welcome back, Haneda.

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