The regional carrier is betting it can use growing demand for remote work to turn its fortunes around.
Japan’s national airline is trying to fill the void by offering Tokyo workers a subscription that allows them to relocate to a city nearly 900 kilometers away and fly back and forth to the capital as often as they want.
Star Flyer Inc. plans to launch a monthly subscription service this spring that includes rented accommodations in and around the southern city of Fukuoka on Kyushu Island, plus unlimited flights between Kitakyushu — a city near Fukuoka where the carrier is based — and Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, spokesman Yuki Furuse said.
The cost would be around ¥200,000 ($1,340) to ¥400,000 a month, which the carrier estimates will compete with rents for large apartments in the capital to attract workers with families.
The regional carrier is betting it can use growing demand for remote work to turn around its fortunes as airlines, hotels and retailers struggle to recover from the economic fallout of the pandemic.
“Compared to tourism, demand for business travel is still weak, which is one of the reasons why we see relocation as a way to cultivate new demand,” Furuse said in an interview.
Japan’s vast rail network, which has long limited the appeal of short-haul domestic flights, has already seen job cuts as commuters stay home. The pandemic has also driven the capital’s office vacancy rate to an eight-year high of 6.5%, according to data from office broker Miki Shoji Co.
The airline came up with the initiative after chairman Tomonori Yokoe, who took over the role in June, asked employees for new ideas. The service emerged from 120 proposals.
Star Flyer plans to release more details later this year, which could include the type of accommodations to be provided and whether the offer includes New Year’s and other travel peaks, when seats are typically fully booked.
Japanese carriers are trying to take advantage of the island nation’s recent reopening of its borders to tourists, with Japan Airlines Co. and ANA Holdings Inc. both suggest they will return to profit this year. However, Star Flyer is yet to issue a profit estimate after reporting a net loss for three consecutive years. It also recorded 53% seat occupancy in the latest fiscal year ended March 31, down from 75% three years ago.
Rents in the Fukuoka area range from about a third to half the cost of living in Tokyo, where the average monthly rent for an apartment in downtown Shibuya costs ¥115,500 a month, according to Lifull Co., a real estate company. portal.
It’s unclear whether flying nearly two hours away for life will resonate with Tokyo workers. Japanese employees are less likely to demand the option to work from home, with just 20% saying they would leave and work elsewhere if asked to return to the office five days a week. Even so, the airline is betting that there is enough interest in moving to Fukuoka, where the cost of living is lower and families can afford larger homes.