Ethnicity and airline routing

Over the past couple of years, I’ve made six flights between Japan and the US. Five of these were on American Airlines’ Narita-Dallas/Fort Worth route, which I use because it’s cheap (both of my parents are retired AA employees) and fairly easy to connect to the Carolinas where my family lives.

I’ve noticed over time that there are very few Japanese people on this flight. The usual composition seems to be one-third Southeast Asians (particularly Vietnamese and Filipinos), one-third US military and DoD civilians, and one-third white guys connecting to and from flights to Asia. There are a handful of Japanese sprinkled about the cabin, but not many.

I’m sure that this is largely due to geography. Japanese expats and Japanese-Americans are clustered around the West Coast and the New York metropolitan area: there aren’t that many in Texas, or in any of the neighboring states for that matter. The Asian community in that part of the country is dominated by Southeast Asians.

But I also wonder whether Japanese people are just unwilling to fly American because the economy class service is so poor. I also flew the JFK-Narita route once last summer, and while there seemed to be more Japanese people on that flight, it was still the “local Asians” (mainly Koreans) who seemed to dominate the Asia/Pacific group on board.

Any other experiences of interesting ethnic combinations on particular flights?

24 thoughts on “Ethnicity and airline routing”

  1. I’m a United guy (started my career in LA, so flew a lot out of LAX, where United has a hub) but I now travel to Silicon Valley on a regular basis. Because of my United miles, I fly United to SFO, but other colleagues used to fly AA from San Jose -> NRT. AA just retired that route after quite some time, so there’s definitely one data point to say that Japanese are not flying AA.

  2. I’ve flown North West NaritaMinneapolis, United, JAL and AA NaritaChicago about 6 times and never seen a single Japanese person (besides the attendants). I always wonder how they choose seating on those planes, because not only are there never any Japanese people on the plane, and even though there are all kinds of Americans, and they’re always together, I’m always sitting with the Chinese passengers who don’t speak English or Japanese. The flights are always so lonely for me, I just want someone to talk to on the plane.

  3. Back when I lived in Nagoya, the NW airlines Detriot to Nagoya flight was always packed with Filipinos. I think the plane went on to Manila after stopping over in Nagoya…

  4. Gen: Indeed, there have been a few routes retired recently… I think a couple of airlines pulled out of New York-Tokyo (NW and ANA, maybe?), American killed its Chicago-Nagoya service and can’t seem to decide whether it likes Dallas-Osaka, etc.

    Although on the other hand, there’s now a nonstop from NRT to Tijuana, of all places.

  5. It isn’t because of the service in economy class flights, it’s because Japanese people mostly use Japanese travel agencies. One thing I had no clue about whatsoever until trying to plan my most recent flight to Tokyo was that Japanese travel agencies are SIGNIFICANTLY cheaper than even the cheapest flight you will find on a site like sidestep.com. The reason is that Japanese travel agencies buy up huge blocks of seats on many popular flights, confident that those spots will be filled. I am booked on a flight to New York City on this upcoming January 20th for 26,900 yen before tax. That’s round trip.

  6. I’m very interested in segregation on individual aircraft. Do you guys notice this as well? It seems like no matter which way I am going (NAmerica to Japan, New Zealand to Japan, or the other way) and no matter what airline, they put all of the Japanese in one part of the plane and all of the foreigners in another. I guess they do this to make things easier on the flight crew and to make sure that people can communicate with their seat buddies, but it still strikes me as strange.

    Also, what Brian Schulman says is 100% correct. Expect to pay far less at a Japanese TAgency than you would if you booked your ticket online or bought it overseas.

  7. And if you speak Japanese you can also sometimes take advantage of those prices in major cities in other countries where Japanese congregate. I know that New York at least has several Japanese travel agencies that don’t even try and advertise to Americans. Not sure if the discounts are as steep from that end as if you originate in Japan though.

  8. I was flying on Air Canada between Toronto and Narita and I actually noticed quite a few Japanese passengers on my flight. This was both during the summer and winter time. Not that Toronto even has a huge Japanese population, but I do know that many Japanese really want to see Niagara Falls. But, I don’t see why other tourist destinations (NY?) don’t have as many. Then again, we were being checked in by ANA personnel in Narita, so there’s probably some alliance going on there.

  9. I also exclusively use Japanese travel agencies, even when going to a 3rd country (ie from America to some other country besides Japan). I don’t know why they’re cheap, but they are, and that’s good enough for me. But it always confuses the person on the phone when we get to the part where they ask for my name 😉

  10. Yatliu – Toronto does not have that many Japanese (compared to NY, LA, etc.) but it is a travel hub for Japan-bound flights from Montreal and Eastern Canada. When you lump all of that together, there will be a decent number of Japanese flying around. I’ve found that most of my Japan-bound flights from central Canada are over 60% Japanese. You are also right in pointing out the Niagra Falls factor.

  11. I noticed the same change in passengers over the years so I asked my sister about it (she worked at AA). She said it was due to a change in stops, the AA flights to Narita used to all terminate at NRT, but now they changed and the flights continue on to stops in Asia.
    So back a few years, every single AA passenger got off at Narita. But now many of them continue on, it’s just a stopover. Apparently this happened due to a change in Japanese regulations, there was some sort of law requiring these AA flights to disembark all passengers, it was some exclusionary/protectionist move to give the Japanese airlines a shot at picking up these passengers.
    So overall, it’s not too surprising that flights that terminate in Japan have a higher percentage of nihonjin passengers, while flights that are just stopovers in Japan have a higher percentage of passengers headed for Korea, China, etc.

  12. MF, Darin: Will have to look into that when I’m headed back to Japan. Any recommendations besides the obvious big ones (JTB, IACE etc)?

    Charles: You’re probably thinking of United or Northwest. American has no continuing flights from NRT to Asia, although they codeshare with JAL and Vietnam Airlines to pick up Asian feed. Also, last time I checked, everyone has to disembark at NRT and go through immigration there, even if they plan to change flights without leaving the airport. There might be an exception for people continuing on the same aircraft, but that’s it…

  13. I know that when I’ve flown back to the US from abroad and had to transfer flights to get to New York (no direct service between New York and Kansai, damnit) I had to be processed through immigration at the first port of entry (Detroit from Japan, Seattle from Taiwan) before continuing on on the same flight. When I flew from Japan to Thailand, it touched down in Manila and I got off the plane for about 45 minutes without having to do anything. My itinerary also hadn’t mentioned Manila, so I was a bit confused.

  14. I’m sure that this is largely due to geography.

    No, this is largely due to the airline you fly. Sure, not many Japanese people need to fly to Texas, but lets face it, the majority of Japanese people fly on a Japanese carrier first, if they fly on a US airliner its United (Star Alliance) or Delta, but Continental and American? Let’s face it, both are very US-oriented airlines.

  15. if they fly on a US airliner its United (Star Alliance) or Delta, but Continental and American? Let’s face it, both are very US-oriented airlines.

    What do you mean by “US-oriented?” I would say that from a Japanese perspective, Delta is far more US-oriented than either Continental or American. It only has one flight per day to Japan now (NRT-ATL), whereas Continental has two (not counting all the Micronesia flights) and American has six (five to NRT and one to KIX).

    Anyway, you’d think that American would get more Japanese passengers because (a) it’s the #3 US carrier to Japan after NWA and United, and (b) it has an extensive partnership with JAL, including sharing lounges and frequent flyer miles, and a ton of code-sharing on both AA domestic flights and JAL intra-Asian flights.

    I won’t argue that US airlines suffer from quality control problems, though, and that might have quite a bit to do with it: I reckon that Americans are more willing to take price over quality than Japanese are.

  16. I flew from Osaka to Detroit on North-west on a plane full of U.S. marines and airforce mechanics who were intent on using words like ‘whoop-ass’ and ‘boo-yah’ in their loud cross-aisle conversation. Take off was waaaay delayed and just out of KIX the engine next to my window caught on fire and was spewing flames for about 5 or 6 seconds. The plane had to turn back. To boot, the stewardesses (and yes, they should still be called stewardesses, dammit) were inattendant old crones that reminded me more of the guys who push you into the train on the Yamanote line than sky-waitresses who are supposed to get you drunk, engage in chit-chat rich with double entendre and fluff up your pillow. Maybe that’s why Japanese people don’t fly American carriers. I’m certainly avoiding NW in future.

  17. To boot, the stewardesses (and yes, they should still be called stewardesses, dammit) were inattendant old crones that reminded me more of the guys who push you into the train on the Yamanote line than sky-waitresses who are supposed to get you drunk, engage in chit-chat rich with double entendre and fluff up your pillow.

    Yup, that’s one of the unpleasant side effects of unionization and age discrimination laws. There should really be some way to kick old flight attendants “upstairs.”

  18. Joe, I assure you that AA flights continue on past NRT. Or at least they did. On my last flight a couple years ago, I sat next to a passenger who told me was continuing on this flight to Korea. I think this was a flight from ORD-NRT, the continuing flights might not be available though the AA main hub in DFW.
    I remember this being a huge thing, US airlines fought for years to get the rules changed so they could use NRT as a stopover to other Asian destinations.

  19. Just came to NYC on United from Narita and almost no Japanese. Mostly Chinese, US civvies from other parts of Asia, sprinkle of AD and some DoD/embassy civvies on the way home from wherever. In flight flims were subtitled in Chinese.

    Prices: what I’ve seen here is very correct. Someone got a 27,000 2x to NYC on the 20th? Crazy. Mine was about twice that on the 21st, but still no complaint. Japanese travel agencies do get the better prices, no doubt.

  20. Very interesting. Yes, Japanese travel agencies can be damn cheap, even (especially) the infamous HIS, which I almost always use (and have never had any problems whatsoever with ‘gaijin pricing’) as they have an agency in my city. It does depend on where you want to go however. Prices to the US mainland, for eg, are generally cheaper than Hawaii, even though NY is about twice the distance. Where Japanese businessmen go en masse is where the cheap routes are. Other locations are perhaps not so cheap. Prices are also generally cheaper the later you book, as they want to sell off the remaining seats as much as possible. Also I dare say a lot of the TAs make their profit in the tours rather than the tickets. It’s been my experience that for example if you want an extra night on a typical hotel-and-flight package, you’ll be paying twice the normal hotel price for that extra night.

    (HIS is selling tickets to the US for 29,800 yen, ex NRT [that’s on 未定 but I always ring and ask anyway – they’ll almost always be able to tell you]. If it wasn’t for worries about my inability to refrain from jail-worthy sarcastic remarks at US Immigration as I was fingerprinted and mug-shotted, I’d head off right now….)

    However although I have flown into and out of Japan a fair number of times now, I cannot recall noticing any overt racial segregation by seating. Possibly as on most flights Japanese are by far the greatest number, possibly as I’m oblivious to my surroundings. But mainly the former. I can recall three occasions where I distinctly remember not being seated next to Japanese, simply as I remember who was seated next to me. But I can also recall times when I was next to a Japanese. And not just the times I was with my gf….

    And yes, US airline stewardesses are rather unpleasant in many ways. Singapore Girl – You’re A Great Way To Fly….

  21. Just did a comparo check between a lesser destination and Japan:
    HIS Air NZ direct to Auckland is about ¥160,000 or so. Air NZ’s own site has NZ$1859, which is actually LESS. As I said, it depends very much on where you go and also what airline.

  22. JAL had segregated seating on aircraft going back at least 30 years. In 1992 there was a whisleblower, and this practice ended out of YVR at that time. An apology was printed in Canadian papers. They are now handled by another ground company and who knows what evil lurks.
    see: Canadian Human Rights Reporter – Carole Geller award

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