A Lean, Mean Operation

Graham Newton explores the latest developments at JAL’s ground handling services as they adapt to the airlines’ ever-evolving requirements.


Japan Airlines (JAL) has experienced plenty of change in recent years, highlighted by its 2004 merger with Japan Air System (JAS). Other notable developments include the acquisition of new aircraft, a growing codeshare portfolio and future expansion at its main airports. To round off a remarkable transformation, on April 1 of this year it joined the oneworld Alliance.

Trying to keep pace with all of this is JAL Ground Services (JGS). JGS, a wholly-owned JAL Group subsidiary came into existence in October 2006 with the unification of the two operating companies formed by the JAL-JAS merger, JAL International and JAL Domestic (the single entity is now known as Japan Airlines International).

Its main job is to serve JAL requirements — aircraft ramp servicing, cargo and baggage handling, cabin cleaning and so forth — at Japan’s main airports of Narita, Haneda, Kansai, Itami, Sapporo and Fukuoka. Ground handling at other regional gateways such as Naha Airport in Okinawa is usually provided by other subsidiaries of the JAL Group or local companies not affiliated with the group. In many cases, contracted local agencies rent ground-handling equipment from JAL but use their own staff.

“Our ground-handling services are a by-word in the airline industry for quality, reliability and efficiency,” says Keisuke Hatano, director of administration and planning, operations and customer services for Japan Airlines. “In terms of quality, we provide the same high levels of service throughout Japan regardless of the size of the airport, but of course the range of services we provide differs from airport to airport. We have secured a dominant market share of ground handling in Japan and currently have contracts with some 55 international airlines.”

Continuous Improvement
Such a strong foundation hasn’t affected a desire to ring the changes in order to keep pace with the rapidly changing aviation environment. However, the inspiration for JAL’s latest strategy doesn’t derive from the airline industry. Instead, it has turned to the car manufacturing business, specifically the Toyota Production System (TPS). This was first introduced to the airline’s cargo department in 2004 and has since spread to other divisions.

“JAL is aiming at around a 10-15 percent productivity improvement using the Toyota know-how,” says Hatano.

The key word in the Toyota vocabulary is kaizen, which translates as continuous improvement — the constant search for ways to do the job better. This is achieved through a philosophy centered on eliminating three main elements: muda (waste); mura (the lack of standardization); and muri (strain).

The TPS aims to replace these three M’s — muda, mura, and muri — with the four S’s — seiri (sorting), seiton (simplifying), seiso (systematic cleaning of work area) and seiketsu (overall cleanliness).

“The ground-handling process is similar to the flow of materials and action in a manufacturing plant,” explains Hatano. “JAL planners felt there was much to be learned from the Toyota system and decided to introduce it.

“Advisors from Toyota were brought in to review our ground-handling work processes from April 2005,” he continues. “Based on their reports we are now making various improvements that will lead in particular to better time management and better resource allocation.”

Airport expansion
Such progress will be sorely needed given JAL’s future prospects. Perhaps the most important development will be the fourth runway at Haneda, Tokyo’s domestic hub and one of the busiest airports in the world. Around the same time (2010), Narita — the international gateway for Japan — is scheduled to have its second runway extended to 2,500 meters (8,202 feet).

Hatano believes these upgrades represent enormous potential for the JAL Group. “The expansion of Narita’s capacity will help us expand our profitable routes there to the maximum and will enable better aircraft utilization,” he says.

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