TT-865 (Tourism Edition) -- Putting Lipstick on Old Airplanes

Japan Travel
* * * * * * * * TERRIE'S (TOURISM) TAKE - BY TERRIE LLOYD * * * * * *
A bi-weekly focused look at the tourism sector in Japan, by Terrie
Lloyd, a long-term technology and media entrepreneur living in Japan.

Tourism Sector Edition Sunday, Sep 18, 2016, Issue No. 865

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+++ Putting Lipstick on Old Airplanes

Catching a flight for business to Shenyang, China, from Narita recently,
I decided to fly ANA because the flight is direct and because I know the
ANA vegetarian options are not too bad. I was ready to enjoy the 3-hour
flight, but landed disappointed after discovering that even though ANA's
fundamentals - the meals and cabin attendant service - are strong, at
the same time it seems to have assigned its oldest aircraft to the China
routes. In my case, the plane seemed straight out of the 1980's, which
after researching the subject later I discovered could be entirely

My two biggest disappointments - and yes, I was traveling Economy - were
the lack of enough toilets for the number of passengers onboard, and
thus creating semi-permanent lines standing outside to use them, and a
woefully inadequate entertainment system. Toilets-versus-seats is a
classic airline accountant's strategy for squeezing out more profit,
which I guess I can't blame ANA for - especially since their ticket
prices are so reasonable.

But the terrible inflight entertainment system is a different matter,
and an ongoing inconvenience that for me as an average passenger has
created a lasting negative impression of the company. For some reason
ANA doesn't seem to realize just how important a decent inflight
entertainment system is these days. Anyone with kids on a medium-to-long
haul flight will sincerely appreciate that a modern system with a good
stock of movies can tame their behavior dramatically. Adults, too, are a
lot more docile and tolerant of less-than-perfect surroundings if they
can zone out by catching up on missed movies or TV shows - after all,
flying is boring - and smart airlines understand the power of
distracting the human mind.

In the case of the ANA plane, I was stuck with a 1990's armrest
controller and an inflight magazine that didn't specify which channel
played which movie, nor, for that matter, which sub-channel represented
each of the 3-5 languages available. So this meant having to flick
through the 5 or so movie channels and playing past the
Japanese-language ads and about 5 minutes of the movie itself before
being able to identify the movie or the language I was watching. I found
myself wasting about 30 minutes going through a trial and error process
to get the right movie in English, and was cursing under my breath the
idiots at ANA for thinking up such a complicated and clueless system.

[Continued below...]

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Indeed, for a Japanese company that supposedly prides itself on
attention paid to the passengers (and sure the inflight attendants at
ANA are great), I would at least expect the company to do something
about improving such a highly visible service as inflight entertainment.
The minimum fix would be a couple of pages in the seat pocket paper
magazine identifying sector entertainment and standardizing the channel
and language assignments so as to help passengers navigate the system.

But a much better fix would be for ANA to modernize the actual
entertainment system itself. I did some research into ANA's fleet age. I
was surprised to learn that ANA is operating 767 aircraft made as long
ago as 1989, making them older than any of the JAL aircraft (their
oldest is 1994). Another comparison is that the average age of ANA
aircraft is 9.5 years, while for JAL it is 8.7 years. Actually this ANA
number is a bit misleading in that ANA has made a significant number of
Dreamliner purchases in the last 3 years, which balances out the rather
advanced age of the rest of the fleet. In fact, a full 20% of ANA's
fleet is older than 16 years (i.e., built before 2000), while only 4% of
JAL's fleet are that old. So it is probably fair to remark that one ANA
profit strategy has been to not update its fleet until it really has to.

There is nothing wrong with this, and unlike nuclear power stations,
aircraft age is not measured in years, but rather in flights, or
"cycles" as the industry jargon puts it. For long-haul aircraft this
means that ANA could conceivably run an airplane for over 100 years
before hitting the recommended 60,000 cycles that Boeing recommends for
retirement. Unfortunately for ANA about 25% of its planes are the
not-so-great 737, which may have a premature airframe fatigue problem,
and so the useful life of this inventory is probably significantly
lower. Now, I'm not saying that ANA is operating old aircraft
negligently, just simply identifying that the company's policy is to run
aircraft for as long as it can - and knowing that, it should do a better
job of improving the interim customer experience until better planes are

So as a result, my flight to China was essentially a throwback to the
1990's. I'd forgotten how much we now take good inflight entertainment
for granted these days, and how frustrating and "vacant" the traveling
experience used to be. I guess we had books back then... :-)

I then decided to take a look at U.S. airlines for a comparison, and was
easily able to find more vintage fleets. Take United Airlines for
example, which is still running 21 747s at an average age of 21 years
each! This helps push United's overall average fleet age to 14 years.
And yet, if you fly United on one of those old 747s, you will also find
that the company has taken a more pragmatic approach to keeping
passengers' attention occupied and this is something that ANA would do
well to copy.

Specifically, the United folks have upgraded their ancient 747s with
modern entertainment systems - either as hardware in seat backs or as
WiFi distributed entertainment to passengers' own communications devices
(their so-called Personal Device Entertainment System). I'm not a huge
fan of the new United own-devices service, because often it often
doesn't work as advertised, but this relatively simple idea - streaming
a large inventory of movies by WiFi so that flyers experience something
better than simply being couped up in an old airplane - is a very
powerful one.

You can see how United is deliberately upgrading their oldest aircraft
first, and thus extending customer tolerance of those old aircraft. Smart.

We don't know how long ANA will take to retire its 737s and even older
Airbus A320s, but we assume that it will be years. If that's the case,
they really need to at least retrofit their aircraft with something like
the United inflight entertainment system. Unfortunately ANA seems wedded
to Panasonic's systems for the foreseeable future, and thus retrofits
are not very likely. In my opinion this is just another example of how
Japanese travel industry players are not thinking through the whole
"customer journey" and in so doing unnecessarily losing market share to
more aware/nimble foreign competitors.

This problem of not understanding customer touch points is not just
limited to airlines, as you will easily realize once you stay in a
Japanese-brand business hotel outside of Tokyo and try to get an English
channel on your room TV. Foreign hotel operators have already figured
out that putting in some free satellite channels goes a long way in
keeping all guests, not just conformist Japanese ones, happy.

...The information janitors/


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