Terrie's Take 865 (Tourism Edition) - Putting Lipstick on Old Airplanes

Terrie's Take terrie at mailman.japaninc.com
Mon Sep 19 00:52:01 JST 2016

* * * * * * * * 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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Written by: Terrie Lloyd (terrie.lloyd at japaninc.com)

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