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Budget airlines finally get airborne in Japan

They may be a long way behind the examples set in the North American and European markets, but budget airlines are finally catching on in Japan.

The concept has been strongly resisted by Japan's two largest carriers, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, as well as the government here, but JAL remains in dire economic straits and ANA bowed to the inevitable earlier this month when it announced the creation of a new cut-price, no-frills subsidiary that will take to the air late next year.

The understanding is that Japanese travelers have finally realized the benefits to their wallet of simply buying the flight and agreeing to pay extra for meals, drinks, newspapers and in-flight entertainment once they are airborne.

ANA is setting up the first domestic low-cost carrier in conjunction with a Hong Kong-based finance firm, First Eastern Investment Group, with the aim of competing with Japan's famous "shinkansen" bullet trains, as well as on overseas routes, but there are already a handful of no-frills foreign airlines that have got their feet in the door here.

Australia's Jetstar was one of the first to make its presence known here, marking three years of service in March by opening a new service between Osaka's Kansai International Airport and Cairns on April 1. That service was launched with a huge television campaign here and the offer of two return fares for the price of one for five months this summer.

It is no secret that the operators of Kansai International Airport have been in financial difficulties in recent years and budget airlines are taking advantage of the airport's need to attract new airlines, virtually abolishing the landing fee for carriers opening new international routes until the end of March 2011.

As a result, South Korea's Air Busan has joined Jetstar on the tarmac at the state-of-the-art facility, along with Jeju Air, also from South Korea, and the Philippines' Cebu Pacific Air.

Spring Airlines, which is based in Shanghai, also saw the chance to drive a bargain with Ibaraki Airport, north of Tokyo, which only opened in March but had failed to attract any international carriers. To mark its arrival, the airline offered one-way tickets between Ibaraki and Shanghai for Y4,000 (€37.15) for a limited time.

The present domestic champion of cheap flights is Skymark Airlines Inc, which has announced that it will open 11 new routes this year, but it may find the competition brought about by the new ANA budget airline tough to survive.

Haneda Airport is scheduled to open its new runway in October, freeing up hundreds of new arrivals and departures and with budget airlines expected to be heading the queue to obtain them. On September 21, Malaysian budget carrier AirAsia X confirmed that it would launch a budget service to the Haneda terminal starting in December.

For travelers to and from Japan, the costs of reaching this previously fairly expensive destination are about to tumble.