Traditional carriers, brace for headwinds. A new Japanese innovation in intercontinental commercial flights that offers the Holy Grail of air travel — discount pricing and luxury service — may be about to eat your lunch.
After all, who wouldn’t want to take a first class flight from central Tokyo to Paris, Rome, Helsinki or Hawaii, complete with a gourmet chef preparing the meals, for a mere 6,600 yen (US$62)? Especially as the total travel time will be well under three hours.
Remarkably, given the cost, this is not some cheapskate operation. Delays are unthinkable, and the airline, which dispatches two flights daily from a new airport in downtown Tokyo, boasts a perfect safety record.
Welcome to First Airlines, which is revolutionizing travel for those who hate to fly, are short of funds, or find international flights problematic for reasons of health or age.
Next big thing in travel?
Naturally, you have to book in advance. Then you need to make your way past the dodgy coffee shops and bars near Ikebukuro subway station’s exit C3 and enter the all-new Ikebukuro International Airport slap bang in the middle of central Tokyo. Check-in takes place at the First Airlines terminal.
Staff, displaying far less bureaucracy and requiring none of the onerous waiting you will suffer at more conventional airports, will usher you onto your flight. After that, all you have to do is sit back in your plush wide leather seat, slip into your slippers, fasten your seatbelt and standby for takeoff.
One minor detail that should, perhaps, be mentioned upfront: There is no actual airplane. But First Airlines, which opened on December 8, 2016, has been providing the best Virtual Reality (VR) travel experience that yen can buy. The numbers say it all: The “airline” has served over 11,000 people thus far, and is going strong.
How does it compare to established carriers? Your intrepid correspondent and 10 other “passengers” recently booked a trip to Rome, Italy. Here is how it went.
Fasten your seatbelts
It’s not surprising that the two daily evening “flights” (each lasting roughly two hours) are usually fully booked, as the attention to detail is remarkable — and the service is stratospheric.
When you walk into the eighth floor of the building where First Airlines is located, a display terminal shows you which flights are leaving, and when. It perfectly replicates the ambiance of an airport terminal, minus the sounds of small children crying or businessmen talking loudly on their phones.
A flight attendant at the counter confirms your reservation, and instead of taking your passport, offers you one: a nice faux red Japanese document. Repeat “flyers” get their trips stamped inside.
Seats are wide and spacious. Three flight attendants in pristine uniforms take your dinner order and ensure you are comfortable. It is a clinically precise replication of the onboard experience, right down to the warning sign to put on your seatbelt. And yes, everyone has to buckle up for takeoff and landing.
How convincing is it? The soundscape and gimmicks work well. My seat vibrated just enough at takeoff that I decided not to take my seatbelt off until we were safely airborne.
Virtual trip, real grub
Each “flight” comes with a three- or four-course meal prepared by a gourmet chef and a choice of drinks.
The trip to Rome started with a well-prepared moist salmon carpaccio, followed by well-seasoned minestrone soup. The main course was saltimbocca, a classic Italian dish of veal wrapped with prosciutto and sage, marinated in olive oil and topped with a generous portion of just slightly seared foie gras. Dessert? A bittersweet tiramisu, of course.
The menu is printed on fine paper and during the meal, the “captain” leaves the controls on autopilot and comes into the cabin to greet all passengers.
After the meal, we “passengers” put on our VR goggles for a virtual tour of Rome, experiencing the cityscape in 360 degrees — although we did have to keep pace with our imaginary guide. My fellow “passengers” were delighted.
A 45-year-old man, who asked to be called Taka, was with his wife. She had taken him to “Rome” as a birthday present and the staff brought him a cupcake before “landing,” wishing him a very happy birthday.
“I loved it. I didn’t really have time to travel anywhere during my vacation this year and certainly I don’t think I could afford to go first class,” Taka said. “I feel like I really did go on a trip.”
His wife explained that she had heard about the experience from a friend and decided to take her husband as a surprise. “I was really just sort of expecting a theme restaurant! It was really fun. I’d like to visit another city this way. Plus, there’s none of the real airport hassle or packing,” she added.
Hiroshi Kato, 45, who works for a large financial institution, has taken several “flights” and says that he finds the whole experience relaxing.
“At the end of a long day at work, when I can make it here and unwind, travel a bit, have a good meal and be treated like a VIP — that’s a great day!” he said, adding: “Getting enough time off work to go overseas isn’t easy, but this I can handle.”
Time travel may be next
Hiroki Abe, the representative director of the company and the “captain” on most “flights,” says that there are indeed repeat customers like Kato, but many taking part are older couples who are not feeling up to the rigors of actual travel.
“There are elderly couples where one partner has weak legs or hip problems that make overseas travel very difficult,” he said. “This is a good substitute for them.”
He noted that the “airline” is also slowly becoming a date spot for middle-aged couples, and some younger ones as well. Other visitors are just friends looking for something new in the city. “We also have first-rate chefs making the in-flight meals,” he said. “I think if people just came and ate, they’d still be getting great value for their money.”
The company is also experimenting with fantastical time-trips so customers can virtually visit the past and enjoy ancient recipes. Time travel, it seems, will be with us in the near future.
Japan has been slowly taking to VR facilities. Last July, VR ZONE SHINJUKU, “the future of Japanese arcades”, arrived with great fanfare. It has been attracting gamers, tourists and amusement park fans.
First Airlines is attracting a more genteel and diverse fan base. As a simulated luxury plane travel VR spot, it may be number one for a long time to come.
The view from the cheap seats
Your correspondent’s view? If they could only get the seats to recline 360 degrees so people could sleep, they could turn the place into a high-end capsule hotel for additional profits.
But be warned: It is in the seedier side of Tokyo. Of course, this offers the possibility of another potential business offering. Could First Airlines one day give customers the chance to join a virtual “Mile High Club?”
However, these are merely a reporter’s suggestions. The current business model appears to work well, and if you’re in Tokyo, it’s worth checking out. It is certainly the fastest, cheapest and least stressful flight I have ever taken to Europe, and unlike its competitors, First Airlines has never suffered a delay.