The analysis and commentary that preceded the Japan Airlines bankruptcy filing yesterday was conducted almost entirely in the words and terminology of failed  airline business models.

The carrier was going to be able to ‘lock in’ more traffic by ditching one alliance, Oneworld, for another, Skyteam. It was assured (as is almost certainly true) of anti-trust immunity to fix fares and timetables in order to better screw consumers in a planned joint venture with a major US carrier.  Fares would be more competitive, yet higher, but sustainable, and it would be able to provide ‘better’ choices to customers even though the plan is to cut the size of its network deeply.

There was even learned commentary suggesting that the stakeholders in Japan Airlines would benefit, or come out ahead. Well, not if they were shareholders, whose stock is to be cancelled, not creditors, who will see $US 8 billion vaporised by bankruptcy, nor if they were employees, since they are to be culled by 30%, nor any who were relying on the pension fund the new company is expected to dishonour.

In short, it is hard to work out what stakeholders are left that haven’t been burned if not destroyed, including the government and taxpayers of Japan.

The language of commentaries that ignored the ingrained culture of incompetence and failure in Japan Airlines should be understood as being uncritical and self-serving and all too readily repeated without questioning on the finance pages.

Rebuilding Japan Airlines using the rubble of its demolition is not a prescription for success, and seems predicated on its major Japan competitor, All Nippon Airways, and better run competitors like Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Qantas and Jetstar not continuing to evolve or react as the government funded recovery plan lurches into action. They will not stand still.

All Nippon is widely believed to be preparing to do its own Jetstar style low cost brand on domestic and perhaps international routes. And Jetstar, contrary to the expectations of many, including myself, made deep inroads into the Japan-Australia market.

It seems that the iron grip of the half dozen or so tour wholesalers who are often considered ‘the’ leisure customers of the Japan carriers is being loosened by on-line distribution and changes in consumer culture.

If the patronising and misleading language of the Oneworld press release promising an essentially bogus $2 billion package of benefits to  Japan Airlines is any guide, it is not surprising that  the  bankrupted  carrier’s new management is reported to have endorsed  defection  from that alliance to Skyteam and thus Delta rather than American Airlines for a joint venture on the Japan-US routes and associated domestic networks.

But will this really make a difference? Do alliances really ‘lock in’ customer preferences? The preference of corporate travel managers these days seems to be to price, as in best price of the day, and while individuals may well be sold on the perceived benefits of alliances, those who control the bookings of most executives are increasingly not sold on them price unseen.

A reasonable prediction is that Japan Airlines, as a much smaller carrier, will be given no quarter by those who are building their businesses with new materials rather than wreckage, with new ideas and processes, and without the baggage of old men’s notions of ‘superiority’ or entitlement, and that it will be despised by those stakeholders who lost everything.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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