Japan's two dominant carriers have indicated they might consider the Airbus A350-1000 aircraft, but for the new widebody to win Japanese sales it will need to overcome the unprecedented institutional loyalty to Boeing.
At the recent IATA conference in Cape Town, All Nippon Airways (ANA) chief executive Osamu Shinobe was reported as saying that ANA was seriously considering the A350-1000. Meanwhile, Japan Airlines (JAL) chairman Masaru Onishi told Flightglobal in a recent interview that it would also consider the Airbus type to replace its Boeing 777s.
Boeing executives have expressed confidence that the follow-on to the 777-300ER, the proposed 777X, will offer superior performance to the A350-1000. Nonetheless, public statements by two of Japan's leading airline executives that appear to favour Airbus will have raised concerns in Boeing's Chicago headquarters.
Flightglobal's Ascend Online database shows that Boeing has a 81% share of Japan's 486 aircraft commercial jet fleet. Airbus is second with 11%, followed by Bombardier and Embraer with 4% each.
In regard to the 156 firm orders that Japanese operators have for commercial jets, Boeing's 63% share is convincing, although Airbus holds 26% of firm orders. Mitsubishi's MRJ regional jet holds 9.6% of orders, and Embraer 1.3%.
Airbus has also secured some impressive wins, such as Skymark's 2011 order for six of the airframer's A380s - the type's only sale in Japan. Skymark has also ordered three Airbus A330-300s.
Geoffrey Tudor, who served as director of public relations at JAL from 1969 to 2007, points out that Boeing set up its first office in Japan in 1953. He adds that Boeing and rival Douglas (which eventually became part of the US airframer) supported the growth of Japanese carriers for two decades before the arrival of Airbus in the 1970s.
"[US airframers] developed deep connections with the fledging Japanese airlines of the 1950s," he says. "JAL also saw huge potential for the [Boeing] 747 early on its history."
He notes that Boeing, in particular, has been willing to come forward with solutions tailored specifically for Japan. In the 1970s, for example, Japanese curfews looked as if they would crimp development of major domestic routes. Boeing's solution was the 747SR, with landing gear optimised for five daily cycles compared with one for a 747 used on long-haul routes.
One Japanese airline source notes that ANA has experience in operating the Airbus A320, and is viewed in the industry as more likely to buy a European-produced widebody than JAL.
"If an Airbus aircraft shows superior performance [to a Boeing type], ANA would probably buy it," he says. "JAL is more traditional. If the Airbus offers marginally superior performance to a Boeing, JAL will probably still go with Boeing."
Tudor agrees with this point of view, noting that ANA found itself "with all its eggs in one basket" when the 787 was grounded from January to June after lithium-ion battery fires aboard JAL and ANA 787s.
The 787 battery fires and grounding were well covered globally, but the story received blanket coverage in Japan - not least because Japanese company GS Yuasa, which makes the 787's battery, was at the heart of the crisis.
With the individual merits of Boeing and Airbus aircraft aside, the influence of Japanese industrial participation in Boeing programmes such as the 767, 777, and 787 have also played a role in JAL and ANA's purchase decisions. Market observers, however, disagree on the degree of importance that JAL and ANA leadership places in the high proportion of Boeing aircraft produced by Japanese industrial giants such as Mitsubishi, Kawasaki and Fuji.
"Japanese people like a history of good results, and if past results are good they don't want to change things," says an executive with a Japanese airline.
Boeing's roots run deep in Japan, but if nothing else, the travails of the 787 highlight the dangers of the big Japanese carriers' one supplier strategy.
Source: Air Transport Intelligence news