Japan’s inbound tourism has started to recover since the easing of COVID-19 border controls, but staff shortages have become a growing problem for the airline industry as many who quit their jobs during the pandemic have not returned.
The layoff of airport staff due to the sharp drop in travelers during the height of the pandemic has resulted in a drop of more than 20 percent in security inspectors nationwide.
Although airlines have made concerted efforts to staff ground operations, many occupations in the industry require qualifications and experience, meaning that returning to an adequate supply of staff will take time.
“Forty percent of the security staff at Fukuoka Airport left during the pandemic. We don’t have a normal situation,” said Tatsuya Yamanaka, an assistant manager of the human resources department at security firm Nishikei, which conducts security inspections at the airport.
Photo taken on Feb. 4, 2023, shows Fukuoka Airport’s international terminal crowded with passengers. (Kyodo)
While the company had been able to handle six passenger lanes at security checkpoints for international routes before the pandemic, it can currently only manage three to four at a time.
At the international terminal, where the number of visitors to Japan from South Korea, Southeast Asia and other regions has increased sharply since the easing of border measures, it is now not unusual to see long lines of people snaking through the baggage inspection area , with waiting times often over 30 minutes. But overcrowding is also a daily occurrence for domestic flights.
“There are many jobs that require national qualifications for inspectors, so even if people are hired, they can’t get into the field right away,” Yamanaka lamented.
According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, there were about 5,600 safety inspectors nationwide in September 2022, the latest figures available. By contrast, about 7,400 people held those jobs in April 2020.
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“There is a nationwide shortage (of inspectors),” said a ministry official in charge of civil aviation.
The growing labor shortage has also affected other international airports in the country. The operator of Sendai International Airport has said it cannot keep pace with the number of daily flights as they return to pre-pandemic levels, admitting that crowds will be a concern for travelers in the meantime.
While New Chitose, Chubu and Kansai airports are not facing staffing issues for security or ground crew, preparations are underway to provide sufficient personnel for the anticipated increase in inbound flights from China.
At Fukuoka Airport, the total number of airport employees, including ground staff and shop clerks, fell by almost 20 percent from fiscal 2019 to about 6,500.
A joint conference with 14 companies, including All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines, is being held on January 28, 2023, at Fukuoka Airport to introduce various staff positions. (Kyodo)
The recent increase in the number of passengers at the airport is in stark contrast to the situation at the height of the pandemic. The airport’s passenger numbers, which had fallen to roughly 140,000 in May 2020, rebounded to 1.78 million by November 2022 — roughly 80 percent of the monthly average before the outbreak.
Fukuoka International Airport Co, which operates Fukuoka Airport, held the first joint conference at the airport in late January. Fourteen companies, including All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines and Nishikei set up booths with about 570 participants. Various jobs were on display, including loading baggage and refueling aircraft.
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Airlines are scrambling to cope with the extra burden at major hubs such as Haneda and Narita airports, which see many travelers.
ANA is resuming recruitment of new staff and providing workforce support between airports, admitting there are “temporary shortages”. About 70 percent of the group’s employees who moved to other companies or to local government have returned.
JAL Ground Service, based in Tokyo and responsible for ground operations, is also seeking staff transfers between airports.
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