By Miya Tanaka
TOKYO — As the 20th anniversary looms on Friday of the worst
single-aircraft accident in history, in which 520 people died,
Japan Airlines Corp has still not convinced the bereaved
families or the general public it has become a company that
gives top priority to safety.
"We have been calling for safety in the sky for 20 years. But
we think the company has become even worse," the association for
families bereaved by the crash that occurred in a mountainous
region named Osutaka Ridge in Gunma Prefecture said in its
Although JAL had vowed to unite all employees in establishing
"absolute safety" after the disaster, a series of blunders this
year have highlighted that the discrepancies between management
and front-line workers are still wide enough to affect the most
important issue — safety.
"After 20 years, I've come to think that JAL hasn't really
reflected upon the accident despite saying that Osutaka was the
starting point of safety, probably because no one was blamed in
the accident," a veteran cabin attendant said.
Slapped with a government operational improvement order in
March following several blunders, JAL reviewed flight operation
manuals and held 220 emergency meetings in April and May to
improve communication between staff and management which,
according to President Toshiyuki Shimmachi, have had "certain
But the blunders have continued. On July 24, a jet landed at
New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido without the engine thrust
reversers operating because mechanics at JAL's wholly-owned
subsidiary forgot to remove the safety pins after completing
Some JAL labor unions are concerned that streamlining has
contributed to undermining safety, saying that transferring
technicians to lower-paid subsidiaries and outsourcing
maintenance work overseas leads to the replacement of
professional technicians with less-skilled cheaper labor and to
deterioration of morale.
JAL is working to reform its cost structure to improve the
effects of its merger with the former Japan Air System Co, a
process it aims to complete in the fiscal year ending March 31,
The company said in its medium-term plan from April 2005 to
March 2008 that it will reduce costs by a total of 75 billion
yen partly by cutting jobs and outsourcing more maintenance work
"Company policy and orders given to improve safety seem to be
missing the point. I feel a stronger sense of crisis than I felt
at the time of the Osutaka crash because of a widening
perception gap between management and the front-line mechanics,"
said Mitsuo Ito, a 56-year-old maintenance engineer working for
JAL for more than 30 years.
The increasing rate of outsourcing the aircraft maintenance
workload conducted by companies overseas, such as in China,
which shot up to 38% in fiscal 2004 from 8% in fiscal 1999, has
also raised concerns among workers.
"JAL mechanics would naturally check not only the spot in
question but the related area because we have pride that it is
'our plane.' But I don't think we can expect commissioned
companies to conduct maintenance at the level we think of as
normal," said Kazuhiro Ichikawa, 58, of the JAL aircraft and
The veteran cabin attendant, who did not wish to be
identified, also feels a change among mechanics. "Staff used to
thank us when we reported problems found inside the cabin as
often as we could, but now they thank us when we report nothing.
The front-line apparently lacks manpower, time and sufficient
equipment," he said.
Although JAL said it is fully aware of the lack of
communication between management and workers, President
Shimmachi's answer to the workers' concerns has so far been, "We
have not cut costs in areas that will affect safety."
"We have made new recruits offer prayers at the crash site
and have recently shown videos of the crash to employees at
overseas branches...I think such things will become the driving
force toward safety," he said.
Meanwhile, experts said the merger with the former JAS, a
process which began in October 2002, has also been a factor
affecting safety matters.
On May 15, when a jet plane from Jakarta landed at Narita
airport, near Tokyo, a cabin attendant from the former JAS was
still holding two meal service carts, apparently because of a
lack of sufficient training in using unfamiliar cabin equipment.
Different corporate cultures, with JAL regarded as Japan's
leading international air carrier and the former JAS only
operating domestic flights, may also be a factor hindering
communication among employees, experts said.
"There are various concerns among workers, and the company
may not admit that they affect business, but after all,
employees are humans with emotions. Such things as morale are
important," Hiroo Moroboshi, a former JAL pilot, said.
None of the problems and serious incidents has resulted in
severe injuries to passengers, but JAL said they have started to
affect its business, with cabin attendants also feeling a sense
of distrust spreading among passengers.
Setsuko Onishi, 52, a JAL cabin attendant for 31 years, said
there was a case in which a passenger warned a crew member that
her voice was too quiet during safety checking procedures in the
Onishi, also the chief secretary of the JAL cabin crew labor
union, said, "What I fear most is that passengers don't trust us
as security staff in emergencies. We will continue urging the
company to create an environment in which employees can
concentrate on safety."
The ailing company, however, has no choice but to bring all
its employees together to overcome these difficulties in an age
of deregulation which is intensifying competition in the airline
industry, Kazuki Sugiura, an air transport analyst, said.
"Mechanics will become busy and their wages may become low,
but if JAL cannot establish a business model to manage both
low-costs and safety, it means it will fail to survive in the
future anyway," he said.
Sugiura thinks the 1985 crash has made JAL attach greater
importance to passengers, and now that 20 years have passed, it
needs to win their confidence by presenting more detailed safety
measures and not just holding emergency meetings.
"The fact that there has been no fatal accident for 20 years
is different from whether passengers feel safe...And that will
not be solved simply by telling employees 'Don't forget
Osutaka'," Sugiura said.
Meanwhile, one bereaved relative suggested it is time the
company began to think seriously about how to ensure the 1985
disaster will not be forgotten within JAL, now that many of the
current employees were not working for the company when the
"I am not hoping that JAL will keep on relating the fact that
520 people died and their families suffered...because to those
who did not experience the accident, it is, after all, someone
else's problem," said Ryoichi Ogawa, 36, who lost his parents
and his younger sister in the crash.
But Ogawa, now living in Kagoshima Prefecture, said he wants
JAL employees to really understand the issue of safety by
sharing what they themselves felt or experienced at the time of
the accident, when many employees were ordered to take care of
the bereaved families and JAL's business received a heavy blow.
"I think it is inevitable that the memory of the accident
itself will fade. But what shouldn't be forgotten is safety, and
I want to see how the company is going to address this in its
policies," he said. (Kyodo News)
August 12, 2005