This year sees the 150th anniversary of the first-ever diplomatic relations between Switzerland and Japan. To mark the occasion, some modest celebrations were held at the departure gates of SWISS’s Zurich-Tokyo and Tokyo-Zurich services on Friday 7 February. Along with the travellers on the flights concerned, the events were attended by a number of SWISS representatives and official invitees.
Switzerland’s relationship with Japan in aviation terms dates back to May 1956, when the initial bilateral air services agreement was signed between the two countries. The first official flight on (what was then) Swissair’s new Far East route to Tokyo took off from Zurich in April the following year, and reached Japan’s capital via intermediate stops in Geneva, Beirut, Karachi, Bombay, Bangkok and Manila.
Swiss traffic rights to Japan have been fairly limited over the years. Despite repeated efforts on Switzerland’s part, the more restrictive policy practised by the Japanese authorities meant that SWISS could only operate five weekly frequencies to Tokyo in its first ten years of existence. The situation did improve somewhat in 2012, though, when the total flights permitted were raised to nine a week (of which SWISS has been flying seven and Edelweiss two).
All that is about to change, though. In the course of his recent official visit to Japan to mark the sesquicentennial, Swiss Foreign Minister (and current Swiss President) Didier Burkhalter co-signed a new open-skies agreement between Switzerland and Japan. Under the new accord, both Swiss and Japanese airlines will enjoy total flexibility in planning and operating their services between the two countries in terms of where they fly to, how often they do so, with what types of aircraft and more. The new agreement also provides more scope for SWISS to work with partners (including Japanese carriers) on the services concerned.
It’s a welcome development: Japan is Switzerland’s second-biggest trading partner in the region (after China), and is one of its prime markets for incoming tourists, too.
A vital bridge
One man at SWISS is especially pleased at all this: Noboru Okabe, our Head of Sales for Japan and Korea. Noboru has been with SWISS and its predecessor Swissair since 1974. Over all those years he’s been a vital bridge between the Swiss and the Japanese cultures; and he was also closely involved in the new open-skies agreement.
We took the opportunity to ask him a few questions:
Noboru, what do you feel has changed most since the early days of Swiss air services to Japan?
Noboru Okabe: Well, the route was first served back in 1957. The service was operated using Douglas DC-6s, and with stopovers in Beirut, Karachi, Bombay, Bangkok and Manila. That all took a lot of time, of course, and over the years the routing was improved to one stop in Bombay, one stop in Anchorage or one stop in Moscow. Now we fly the route non-stop, and it takes less than half the time it did at the start.
How important is this new open-skies agreement between Switzerland and Japan?
Noboru Okabe: Very! In the past Japan’s air services have been fully regulated. So if a Swiss carrier wanted to increase its frequencies or operate to a new Japanese destination, government-level talks had to be held to agree on the new traffic rights. And that’s been quite time-consuming: it’s even taken years in some cases! We want to be able to align our services more flexibly to demand. And with the new open-skies accord, that’s exactly what we can do.
How do you feel right now, and what are the next steps?
Noboru Okabe: We’re so pleased to see this big step forward. Nothing will change in the immediate future: we’ll continue to serve the Zurich-Tokyo route daily, with two extra weekly services in the peak June-to-September period. That’s adequate for the current market demand; but if that demand changes, we’re now so much better placed to respond!
What impact will this new agreement have on your own work?
Noboru Okabe: As I said, we’ll be able to match our services much better to the market demand, from Europe and from Japan. The business environment is changing all the time, for SWISS and the entire Lufthansa Group. And this new open-skies accord will enable us to be a lot more proactive, and much swifter in our responses to all these developments.
How important is SWISS in Japan?
Noboru Okabe: Well, the Tokyo-Zurich route isn’t exactly booming right now. That has a lot to do with the current state of the economy, and with currency factors, too. But this is all about getting prepared today to meet the challenges of tomorrow. The Japanese economy is expected to bounce back in the coming years. And when it does, we’ll be far better equipped to meet the higher market demand.