Japan airlines locked in fresh landing slot battle

TOKYO - Japan's two biggest airlines were locked in a fresh battle Friday over landing slots at a Tokyo airport, with the civil aviation regulator playing referee between the warring carriers.

The spat erupted again as All Nippon Airways (ANA) lodged a complaint over rival Japan Airlines' (JAL) application to launch a new route to Ho Chi Minh City from downtown Haneda airport, the world's fourth-busiest hub.

The request came several months after Japan's transport ministry awarded twice as many Haneda landing slots to ANA, prompting threats of legal action from its key domestic rival which had earlier received a massive bankruptcy rescue from Tokyo.

On Friday, ANA president Shinichiro Ito said JAL's request was giving the airline a "great sense of crisis", and warned it was falling behind its bailed-out rival.

"We are concerned that the business environment would get further distorted," he told reporters in Tokyo Friday, adding that "we hope the Civil Aviation Bureau will make an appropriate decision".

ANA has tried to cut costs and boost productivity to keep up with its rival, Ito said.

"But there is no way we can catch up if this distorted business environment continues," he added.

A bureau official told AFP that a decision on JAL's bid would made be after considering "all aspects of ensuring that there is an environment of fair competition".

A JAL spokesman said the new route was aimed at rising demand from business passengers, but declined to comment on its rival's objections.

The two carriers are looking to boost their international routes - and lucrative business clientele - as they fight off competition from a fledging budget sector focused mainly on domestic flights.

ANA has routinely criticised once-bankrupt JAL's bailout, which saw it re-list its shares in Tokyo after a share offering that raised a whopping US$8.5 billion (S$10.75 billion), one of the biggest globally in 2012.

The carrier has posted strong earnings since its return to the market, placing it among the most profitable airlines in the world.

In October, the government said ANA would get 11 of 16 new international take-off and landing slots at the airport in Tokyo bay.

JAL, which had expected to share the slots evenly, got just five. The new route to the Vietnamese city was not part of the earlier allocation.

Haneda has better access to the Japanese capital's downtown than suburban Narita airport, which is a major international gateway.

Japan's transport ministry is aiming to boost international flights at both airports in anticipation of big influx of visitors for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.