With Japanese carriers expanding following the 1950s, the country saw the birth of North Japan Airlines. The carrier started with a small group of de Havilland Herons, Douglas DC-3s and Convair 240s serving routes in northern Japan, primarily on routes from Sendai.
However, the airline saw more potential with merging with Nittoh Aviation to expand operations further South. The new carrier was rebranded into Japan Domestic Airlines and opted to focus on domestic routes throughout north and central Japan.
The new airline was officially created in 1964 and started replacing some of the older models with newer aircraft like Convair 880s and NAMC YS-11s. By 1970 the carrier was looking to expand further South, and by 1971 a deal was made to merge Japan Domestic Airlines with Hiroshima based Toa Airways.
Toa Airways would become known as Toa Domestic Airlines and would operate alongside the Japan Domestic Airlines brand. Following the merger, the airline decided to slow down and focus strengthening the routes it already flew.
Japan Domestic Airlines started a fleet renewal process in 1980s with the addition of larger aircraft to suit the Japanese market. An order for Airbus A300s was made and deliveries started in the mid 1980s. The carrier also made plans to overhaul its narrowbody fleet, adding the popular McDonnell-Douglas MD-80 aircraft.
By 1988 the airline was looking to expand internationally and decided that a brand change would help accompany their expectations to fly outside of Japan. The airline changed their name from Toa Domestic Airlines to Japan Air System (JAS), soon after flying to Seoul, South Korea using Airbus A300s. New aircraft arrived through the late 1980s and early 1990s as the airline flew most of their aircraft in an all economy class layout.
As larger and more efficient aircraft arrived, the NAMC YS-11s were transitioned to a regional arm that the carrier started in the mid-1980s by the name of Japan Air Commuter (JAC).
With JAS becoming successful in the early 1990s, the carrier decided to continue its international expansion with announcement that the Chinese cities of Guangzhou, Kunming, and Xian would be added. Outside of China, flights to Singapore, Hong Kong and Honolulu would also be added before 1994.
The carrier also added the Boeing 777-200 to its fleet with the aircraft seeing usage on high-density intra-Japan routes as well as occasionally flying to Hawaii when it was in season.
By 2000, Japan Air System had hit its peak, flying to 46 destinations and operating a fleet of 39 Airbus A300s, 7 Boeing 777-200s, 34 McDonnell-Douglas MD-80s and 16 MD-90s. The carrier had successfully made itself the third largest carrier in Japan, trailing only Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA). The carrier had two regional branches in Japan Air Commuter and Hokkaido Air System, which operated from Osaka and Okadama, respectively.
However, the airline was greatly impacted by the events of September 11, 2001. Japanese demand, especially in the domestic market, dropped as JAS started to look to cut costs. As the airlines started to recover in 2003, JAS actually overtook Japan Airlines has the second largest carrier in the domestic market but was trailing far behind All Nippon, who had claimed nearly 40% of traffic.
With both Japan Air System and Japan Airlines falling further behind, the airlines began talks of a potential merger to become a more competitive airline. After a few months of negotiations, JAS and JAL agreed to merge in 2004, with Japan Airlines becoming the surviving name. The merged airline would consist of over 250 aircraft, with most of the JAS fleet being maintained to meet demand.
Originally, Japan Air Systems would be rebranded into Japan Airlines Domestic, with the fleet remaining as was with the former JAS carrier. By 2006 the idea of operating a separate domestic carrier changed, and Japan Airlines Domestic was completely merged into JAL. Japan Airlines maintained the two regional arms from JAS and continues to operate them out of their respected hub, but now use Saab 340s and Bombardier Dash 8s.
Not much remains of the old JAS fleet, as JAL removed the MD-80s from the main carrier’s fleet in 2008 in order to cut costs. The Airbus A300s followed suit, with the final one leaving the fleet in 2011. Most of the A300s were able to find new homes though, mostly as cargo aircraft in Europe for DHL.
The MD-90s were the next to be removed, with the last one being sold to Delta Air Lines in 2013. The only JAS aircraft still in JAL’s fleet is the Boeing 777-200, which still operate as the oldest Boeing 777-200s in JAL’s fleet at over 20 years old.