Japan's biggest airline calls for border controls to be eased

ANA sees Omicron as a risk in coming months, potentially crippling travel demand. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO (BLOOMBERG) - The head of Japan's biggest airline has urged the government to ease its strict border controls, which have effectively shut the nation to foreigners, saying they are hurting the economy and the aviation industry.

"There are various problems happening with the situation that foreigners can't enter Japan," Mr Yuji Hirako, the president of All Nippon Airways said in an interview on Wednesday (Feb 9). "I hope for eased border controls for the sake of the Japanese economy."

Earlier on Thursday, ANA said Mr Hirako will be replaced as president by Mr Shinichi Inoue, effective April 1. At parent company ANA Holdings, senior executive vice-president Koji Shibata will succeed Mr Shinya Katanozaka as president.

Japan's border controls, implemented when the Omicron variant started to circulate late last year, are by far the strictest among the Group of Seven advanced nations. They have attracted criticism as the country slammed its door shut to foreign visitors and students, even as record case numbers undermined the policy's effectiveness.

The border closure has also hit ANA's business. While the airline squeezed out a profit for the first time in two years last quarter, it sees Omicron as a risk in coming months, potentially crippling travel demand.

"Once the border control is relaxed, we will see more demand for business flights again," Mr Hirako said, adding that he and Japan Airlines president Yuji Akasaka were among a handful of executives who were unable to attend the International Air Transport Association's annual meeting in October. "The key is when passenger demand for international flights come back," Mr Hirako said.

"It's important to have an exchange of information by seeing people face to face at an international conference," he said. "It not only applies to the aviation industry, but to all kinds of businesses."

Mr Masakazu Tokura, head of Japan's top business lobby Keidanren, last month said the border measures are "unrealistic", calling on the government to rethink the arrival ban now that Omicron accounts for most infections.

"Business doesn't function on a purely domestic basis," he said.

The government seems to be considering making a move, with an easing of measures set to be announced as soon as next week, according to broadcaster TBS. Mr Daishiro Yamagiwa, the minister in charge of Japan's coronavirus response, said last week the government would be "flexible" and wants to eventually open up the country to "essential" foreigners.

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