From the bottom up – well done, JAL!

What great news this week: on 17JAN24, with the appointment of Mitsuko Tottori effective 01APR24, Japan Airlines announced its first-ever female president – a cause for celebration in more ways than one: from the point of view of greater equality and diversity within Japan, in aviation’s top management, and from the aspect of truly having worked her way to the top from the very front line of the company. Those who truly know the business from its grass roots, enjoy the most trust from employees.

Mitsuko Tottori Will be leading on personal experience from the front line – image: JAL

And positive news too, on top of what was otherwise a very difficult start into the New Year for Japan and Japan Airlines. Following a devastating earthquake on 01JAN24, a second shocking event happened the next day, when a Japan Coast Guard aircraft collided with JAL Flight 516 at Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, and both aircraft burst into flame. Five of the six occupants of the Coast Guard aircraft tragically lost their lives. The astoundingly exemplary evacuation of the JAL Airbus 350-900 within 18 minutes, however, meant that all 379 passengers and crew survived. A credit to the excellent training of the crew and the discipline of the passengers.

Safety is the foundation of an airline company
The accident is being investigated, and while it would appear that human error on the part of the Coast Guard aircraft was the cause, Tottori stated in the press event on 17JAN24, that she would continue to be committed to safety as she had been since 1985. Coincidentally, the year she joined JAL was also the year that its JAL Flight 123 crashed into a mountain outside Tokyo, killing 520 out of the 524 people on board of the Boeing 747SR-46. – the worst single-aircraft accident to date in the history of aviation. She said: “The shock at that time is still deeply carved in my heart. And I have maintained a strong sense of responsibility to hand down the importance of aviation safety to younger generations. Safety is the foundation of an airline company, and I will work on safe operations with even stronger conviction.”

Knowing the business inside-out
Certainly, her career path has often been focused on safety issues. Having begun as a flight attendant in 1985, she worked her way up through the echelons which included positions such as Senior Manager, Cabin Safety Department, Vice President, Cabin Safety Department, Managing Executive Officer and Senior Vice President, Cabin Attendants, Senior Vice President, Customer Experience, and (currently) Chief Customer Officer, with many Cabin Crew-related functions in between. Having been on the front line and faced with so many different aspects of the company, will stand her in good stead as company leader when she replaces current JAL president and CEO Yuji Akasaka on 01APR24. He will then become JAL Chairman, taking over from Yoshiharu Ueki, who will be retiring.

More women in top management, slowly but surely
A woman at the top. A rarity particularly in Japan, which is one of the lowest-ranking countries when it comes to gender equality, coming in at 125th out of the 146 countries that the World Economic Forum tracks in its Gender Gap report. An OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development) report from 2021, showed that only 13.2% of management positions in Japan were held by women that year – putting the country in last place among the OECD members. It also has a massive gender pay gap. Yet, Japan’s government is pushing for 33% of leadership positions at major businesses to be held by women by 2030 – a goal it had originally set for 2020. Japan Airlines, on the other hand, is aiming to achieve 30% female managers by MAR26. In MAR23, it reported 22.8%. With Tottori’s appointment, this may well be further improved. She stated at the Tokyo press event on 17JAN24: “There are female employees out there who are struggling with their career steps or going through big life events. I hope my appointment as a president can encourage them or give them the courage to take the next step.”

And more aviation top management women, too
When it comes to number of women in top management within the aviation industry, other countries are not that great either. In fact, just a week earlier, on 09JAN24, the first ever female CEO of a major US airline was announced with Joanna Geraghty’s appointment at JetBlue. Tottori and Geraghty bring the global number up to 30 airlines that now have a female CEO. An interesting article in Travel News from 05JUL23 [], which pointed out that “only slightly more than half of IATA airline members have made the commitment [to sign IATA’s 2019 25by2025 initiative]. Signatories of 25by2025 have pledged that by 2025 they will either increase their proportion of women in senior positions to 25% or achieve a 25% increase in that metric,” also included an excellent statement from Poppy Khoza, CEO of the South African Civil Aviation Authority: “‘As long as we have leaders who don’t have the foresight about the benefits of having both women and men working together to achieve the results of an organization — understanding that one doesn’t have to compete with the other and that both men and women have a lot to offer — I think we’re doomed. We need leaders who take bold steps.’ Khoza said that she is loath to talk about statistics, since women want and deserve to be hired on their merits. Still, she noted that women comprise 51% of the employees at her organization. ‘It’s not that the talent is not there. It is there,’ she said. ‘We just don’t want to go and look for it. To me, not to transform is a decision that you’ve taken already.’”

Coming back to cargo after 13 years

On the same day that Tottori was announced upcoming President, the airline also took delivery of its first cargo plane in 14 years, rekindling its freighter business which it had stopped in 2010, the year it sought bankruptcy protection. The first of three converted Boeing 767-346(ER)s (with an upper-deck cargo capacity of 32 tons and 16 tons in the lower-deck), flew in from Singapore to Tokyo, landing at 16:27. It is set to commence commercial operations next month, and will serve routes out of Tokyo Narita International Airport (NRT) and Nagoya Chubu Centrair International Airport (NGO), to Shanghai Pudong International Airport (PVG), China, Seoul Incheon International Airport (ICN), South Korea, and Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport (TPE).



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