TBT (Throwback Thursday) in Aviation History: Southwest Air Lines in Japan

Southwest Air Lines Boeing 737 in Japan (Photo: By FotoNoir - Southwest Air Lines Boeing 737-2Q3 (JA8467/706/22367), CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24284380)

With the Japanese islands of Ryukyu becoming a popular domestic tourist destination, airlines made moves to provide flights to the island chain. One of these carriers was Southwest Air Lines which started operations throughout the island chain in 1967 with a single Convair 240.

The airline based its operations around the city of Naha in the Okinawa Prefecture, and found early success throughout the island, allowing it to add more Convair 240s and expand to more islands.

Southwest realized that it would need new aircraft to replace the ageing fleet, and opted to add the NAMC YS-11. The airline also wanted to launch mainland Japan service, adding the Boeing 737-200 to fly to Osaka, Nagoya and Tokyo-Haneda.

As the carrier expanded, the demand for more service to the domestic island chain lead the airline to create a regional arm in 1985 to supplement the main fleet. The airline made a deal with the Okinawa Prefecture to create Ryukyu Air Commuter that would allow for passengers to get to the small islands such as the Amami and Yoron. The fleet of Ryukyu Air Commuter would consist of some of the YS-11s from Southwest as well as adding the DeHavilland DHC-6 for smaller islands.

The demand from the mainland to the small island chain led Southwest Air Lines to add the Boeing 767-200 to the fleet in the late 1980’s. With the widebodies operating the long-haul legs to mainland Japan, the Boeing 737s were transferred to the island’s more popular intra-Prefecture routes from Naha.

However, with Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways heavily entrenched in the market and Southwest being a successful regional carrier, merger offers soon began arriving. Eventually, Southwest would agree for Japan Airlines to take over a 50% stake in the carrier, as the airline would become part of the JAL fleet.

The deal was finalized in 1993, and the airline’s Boeing 737-200s were replaced with newer Boeing 737-400s. The Boeing 767-200s and YS-11s were retired as the main carrier would handle a majority of the flights to the mainland.

With JAL at the helm, executives decided it was best to retire the Southwest Air Lines brand altogether to keep similar branding between the entire Japan Airlines fleet. The airline would be rebranded to Japan Transocean Air and wear a similar livery to the parent company.

Ryukyu Air Commuter was allowed to keep its brand name, but would also trade its paint scheme for the traditional JAL livery. The DHC-6s and YS-11s in the regional arm’s fleet would be traded out for larger Bombardier Dash-8s to allow for more passengers.

Japan Transocean Air continues to operate today with a similar schedule to what it operated when it was bought out in 1993. The airline still operates flights to Tokyo-Haneda and Osaka, and has also added service to Fukuoka, Kansai and Kagoshima. In 2013 JAL launched retro schemes for both Southwest Air Lines and Ryukyu Air Commuter with a Boeing 737-400 (JA8999) in full Southwest livery and a Bombardier Dash-8-100 in full Ryukyu Air Commuter colors.

The airline is going through another change in recent years. The Boeing 737-400s it inherited from JAL Express when it merged are old, and currently being phased out for Boeing 737-800s. The last Boeing 737-400 flights for JTA is scheduled for 2018. Simultaneously, Ryukyu Air Commuter is replacing older Dash-8-100s and Dash-8-300s with newer model Bombardier Dash-8-400s in a mixed cargo/passenger format.

Ian McMurtry

Ian McMurtry

Ian has been an avgeek since 2004 when he started spotting US Airways Express planes at Johnstown Airport in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. He now lives in Wichita and enjoys spotting planes in Kansas City and Wichita as well as those flying at high altitudes over his home. He is a pilot with more than 40 hours of experience behind a Cessna 172, Diamond DA-20, and Piper PA-28. He flies Southwest Airlines on most of his domestic flights and Icelandair when flying to Europe. Ian’s route map spans from Iceland and Alaska in the north to St. Maarten in the south. He is a student at Wichita State University, where he will study aerospace and mechanical engineering.
Ian McMurtry