Japan Airlines

Japan Airlines is part of a privately owned Japanese travel corporation. The airline serves both a large domestic market and a network of international routes.


Japan’s major international airline began shortly after World War II, when the country was recovering economically and was beginning to see opportunities to participate in the newly aligned world. In 1951, Japan Air Lines was formed as a privately owned company. Its first flights were domestic, achieved by leasing both aircraft (Martin 202’s) and crews from Northwest Airlines, which served Japan from North America.

In the following year, Japan Air Lines had acquired its own aircraft and trained its own crews and had become a major element in Japan’s internal transportation system. In 1953, the Japanese government acquired 50 percent of the company and became an owner and controller for the next thirty-four years. During this time the company was considered a government-sponsored air carrier.

Japan Air Lines achieved its ambition of becoming an international carrier in 1954, when it introduced its first foreign destination, San Francisco. As the decade continued, the airline added other international routes, with accelerated growth beginning in 1960 when jet service with DC-8’s was introduced. Polar flights to Europe (London, Paris, and Copenhagen) and westward lower-latitude flights to Europe (Rome, Frankfurt, and London via Karāchi and Cairo) constituted a truly global pattern. When the United States finally allowed Japan Air Lines to cross it with flights from the West Coast to New York and on to Europe, it became officially an “around-the-world” airline.

A noteworthy introduction occurred in 1974 when the airline began flights to and from the People’s Republic of China. Historians list this event as one of the important opening steps between Communist China and the West. Japan Air Lines flights provided a channel of travel, communication, and commerce where one was greatly needed.

In 1987, the Japanese government divested itself of its share (then 34 percent) in the company, which became again a private corporation. Ownership is traded on the stock exchange and majority stockholders are primarily Japanese banks and insurance companies.

Two years later, the company underwent a reorganization, the most visible aspect being a change in its name from Japan Air Lines to Japan Airlines. During the last decades of the twentieth century, the corporation expanded its business into other travel and related companies, including subsidiary airlines, hotels, and even rapid surface travel concepts. By the year 2000, Japan Airlines was carrying over 30 million passengers and 1 million tons of cargo per year. It had become Asia’s largest airline. By that year, revenues of the airline part of the corporation had reached a level of just over $10 billion.


At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Japan Airlines routes served seventy-eight different cities in a total of twenty-nine countries and territories, and, through code-sharing agreements with other airlines, its routes included eighty additional cities in the United States. The majority of its primary destinations are in Japan, where the schedules include twenty-three cities. It directly serves twelve U.S. airports. Its worldwide routes include polar routes to Europe, around-the-world service via the United States, extensive Asian service especially to China, and one South American city, São Paulo, Brazil.

Within Japan, the airline shows an unusual pattern of service. In most countries, especially physically small countries such as Japan, domestic airlines use small, short-haul aircraft. Japan Airlines, however, serves Japanese cities with wide-body craft, including many Boeing 747’s. In fact, Boeing developed the 747SR (short range) and the 747SR-SUD (short range, stretched upper deck) largely because of Japan Airlines’ domestic needs. To support these routes, Japan Airlines has eighteen thousand employees and operates 112 offices worldwide.


Japan Airlines has an unusually top-heavy fleet, with the largest number of Boeing 747’s of any airline in the world. In 2001, it was flying eighty 747’s, including seven different versions of that airplane. These made up the bulk of its fleet of 135 planes. Of the remainder, most were also jumbojets (including the 767, which, although smaller than the 747 and the 777, qualifies as a jumbojet because of its intercontinental capability). There were only twelve smaller jets, including Boeing 737’s and MD-11’s.

Most JAL aircraft are painted in traditional, businesslike colors, a white body with the circular JAL logo, formed by the body and wings of a tsuru (crane), on the tail and the letters JAL on the fuselage. However, the company introduced fancier colors for special routes in the 1990’s. The domestic 737’s, for instance, are each named for a different flower and sport pictures of their flower on their sides. The 777’s are called “star jets” and the name of a bright star with a picture of its constellation is shown on each plane’s fuselage. Planes used for resort destinations, such as Hawaii, Guam, and Saipan, are called Reso’cha and are decorated with elaborate pictures of tropical flowers and birds.


The airline expanded and diversified in the last decades of the twentieth century and now is connected with approximately three hundred subsidiaries and affiliates, including a hotel chain (Nikko Hotels International), subsidiary airlines (such as Japan Asian Airways) and tour and resort operations. In addition to these attempts to enhance revenue, the company has also engaged in environmental activities, including a program of monitoring the carbon dioxide content in the stratosphere using equipment installed on its intercontinental jet planes on normally scheduled flights. It sponsors international cultural and sports events, such as the Otobutai concerts, remarkable musical events that combine traditional Japanese music performances with music from the West, all performed in one of the historic castles of Kyoto.


  • Bullock, F. Pacific Glory: Airlines of the Great Ocean. Osceola, Wis.: Motorbooks International, 1999. A comprehensive and heavily illustrated look at the airlines that serve the Pacific rim countries.
  • Doganis, R. The Airline Business in the Twenty-first Century. London: Routledge, 2001. A technical look at the future of the airline industry and the new problems and opportunities that are likely to arise.
  • Hanlon, J., and P. Hanlon. Global Airlines: Competition in a Transnational Industry. Woburn, Mass.: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1999. A detailed economic analysis of the strategies of international airlines.

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