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Japan Airlines cuts back on summer flights to Anchorage

Faced with a pilot shortage and fleet reductions, Japan Airlines will dramatically cut back the number of summer charter flights it sends to Anchorage.

Rather than flying directly to Alaska's largest city, many visitors from Japan will have to take layovers in Vancouver, Honolulu, Seattle or other West Coast cities.

JAL will cancel 14 summer charter flights to Anchorage, each with the capacity for about 200 passengers, said John Parrott, manager of Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport. The airline plans just three for this summer -- one from Nagoya and two from Tokyo, said JAL spokeswoman Carol Anderson.

Parrott said the loss of the JAL charters will be offset by the addition of other routes, including new flights from Changsha, China, on Dynamic Airways and Icelandair's decision to extend its charter season.

More worrisome, perhaps, is the company's upcoming decision on the continuation of winter charter flights to Fairbanks. The flights, which began in 2003, bring tourists from Japan to see the northern lights. The visitors have brought millions of dollars to the Interior city's economy.

JAL plans to "maintain a presence in the Japanese market for aurora tours" and make a final decision about its Fairbanks charters in August, Anderson said.

"Obviously we're disappointed, but we recognize the limitations that JAL is facing with their planes and their pilots," said Jillian Simpson, director of membership and tourism policy at the Alaska Travel Industry Association.

About 11,600 Japanese tourists came to Alaska during the 2011-12 tourist season, according to the state division of economic development. Tourists from Japan make up a small percentage of overall visitor numbers, but they tend to spend significantly more per person than the average visitor to Alaska.

In summer 2011, Japanese visitors racked up the highest per-capita spending of any nationality, at $3,340 per person, not including travel to and from the state. The average tourist during the same period spent $941 per person.

Customer demand for Alaska travel remains strong, said Anderson, the JAL spokeswoman.

"The airline's decision to reduce charters to Alaska is due to limited charter flight resources," she said. "JAL wishes to recover the number of charter flights to Alaska as soon as operating resources will allow."

The pilot shortage at JAL and other airlines is so severe that the Japanese government in April raised the age limit for piloting a commercial plane to 67 years old. The mandatory retirement age for commercial pilots in the United States is 65, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The airline has also undergone fleet reductions as part of a business restructuring program, Anderson said.

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