Lack of Staff Could Hinder Efforts to Increase Visitors to Japan

The shortage of personnel in airport services, which support aircraft operations, is becoming more serious and could interfere with smooth flight operations.

The government and the airline industry need to take urgent measures to ensure that this issue does not hinder the acceptance of foreign visitors to Japan.

Airport services include security checks of passengers’ baggage, guiding and refueling planes, transporting luggage and many other tasks. The sharp drop in demand for air travel during the coronavirus pandemic caused a mass departure of employees who handled such duties.

While the return of visitors to Japan is picking up following the easing of border control measures, airport workers have not been returning at a sufficient rate. The current number of employees is said to be about 20% less than the pre-pandemic total.

If this situation continues unabated, there is concern that it will not be possible to sufficiently handle people coming into or leaving Japan.

There are expectations that the increase in visitors to Japan will provide a boost to the Japanese economy. It is therefore vital to avoid a labor shortage that could hamper such growth.

Services at urban airports are mainly handled by group companies of major airlines such as Japan Airlines Co. But at regional airports, these tasks are often contracted out to local small and midsize firms by the major carriers and others. As such, the labor shortage in rural areas is said to be even more conspicuous.

At the airport on Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture, a Hong Kong airline requested the resumption of flights halted during the pandemic, but was denied because of the labor shortage. Other regional airports have put a freeze on the increase of flights, even as they continue to receive requests from overseas airlines.

Acknowledging the situation, an expert panel established by the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry has compiled a list of measures to resolve the shortage of airport workers.

The biggest issue to be addressed is improving working conditions for employees. The average annual salary of airport workers is no higher than ¥4 million. This low level compared to other industries is said to be an obstacle to hiring workers.

As a means for funding a wage hike, the expert panel called for increasing the consignment fees paid by major airline companies for airport services. It is hoped that the major carriers will accept the requests to raise the fees. Looking ahead, asking airport users to bear more of the burden may be an option to maintain airport services.

The role of local governments is also important. Some are implementing their own measures, such as subsidizing the costs involved in the hiring of employees for airport services. Encouraging foreign tourists to Japan to visit regional areas is a key part of measures to stimulate local economies. It is hoped that local governments will play a role in supporting local airports.

As a way to cut down on labor, the introduction of “smart lanes,” which can shorten the time needed for security inspections using high-tech image analysis, is proceeding. Testing is also underway on automated baggage-carrying vehicles. It is hoped that the central government will support investments in labor-saving measures through subsidies and other means.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, July 14, 2023)