A Boeing jet plane carrying 177 passengers, including Gov. Ralph DLG Torres, touched down at the Francisco C. Ada/Saipan International Airport at about 3:04pm last Friday, marking Skymark Airlines Inc.’s inaugural daily direct flight from Tokyo and, with it, the fervent hope of the CNMI for a revived tourism market from Japan.
As the Boeing 737-800 plane maneuvered to its parking spot on the tarmac, a fire truck from the Commonwealth Ports Authority’s Aircraft Rescue Fire and Firefighting Unit shot an arc of water over the airplane in a glistening water salute. A welcoming delegation—which included Lt. Gov. Arnold I. Palacios, House Speaker B.J. Attao (R-Saipan), Saipan Mayor David M. Apatang, and several government and Skymark officials—clapped and cheered near the airport’s entrance.
When the plane’s passengers entered the airport building itself, they were met by 2019 Miss Marianas Shannon T. Sasamoto, several MVA staff, and members of the Saipan Awaodori Team, who greeted the visitors and handed them souvenir gifts and shell leis.
At a press conference later at the Skymark Airlines’ departure counter, Torres, who was onboard the arriving airplane with a 12-man CNMI delegation, congratulated Skymark president and representative director Masahiko Ichie and his team for having their first international direct regular flight service. Skymark is primarily a domestic airline in Japan and this trip to Saipan is its first regular international flight.
“Today is a time to celebrate because we have worked on this for the last couple of years and we would not be here without everyone’s contribution,” Torres said, citing the efforts of Marianas Visitors Authority board chair Marian Aldan-Pierce, Commonwealth Ports Authority board chair Kimberlyn King-Hinds, CPA board members, and the Skymark team, among others.
Torres recalled that, as he was taking his seat for the flight to Saipan, a gentleman to his left told him that this regular Skymark flight is good news for the Japanese people.
Torres said he replied that it is also good news for the CNMI, to which the gentleman insisted that it’s good for the Japanese, especially for him.
“So…I asked why?” Torres asked.
The gentleman replied: “Because, sir, this is my 162nd time to [visit] Saipan,” said his seatmate.
That reply drew applause from the people who attended the press conference.
Torres said the CNMI looks forward to a very successful partnership with Skymark. “The success of Skymark is Marianas’ success,” the governor said.
Palacios said there are many people to commend for the hard work that they put in to bring a Japanese airline directly out of Japan to Saipan.
Palacios said former MVA managing director Christopher A. Concepcion was one of the key players when the administration was still trying to get an airline back to Saipan.
Palacios said that CPA, legislative leaders, and all government leaders will continue to work very hard to ensure that “this memorable day” will continue to be sustained.
Ichie, who also joined in the inaugural flight, said the day is a very special occasion for both the CNMI and Skymark.
“We are finally launching our regular airline service between Saipan and Japan. And we owe this to the people of the CNMI,” Ichie said.
Ichie said they are committed to the relationship between the CNMI and Japan. “Marianas is an attractive tourist destination, but is also close to Japan historically,” said Ichie, adding that they are excited about the relationship between the CNMI and Japan.
In a separate interview, Aldan-Pierce said this is something that they have been working on for over a year and a half now, that the CPA board worked closely with MVA and Concepcion to make this direct flight happen. “Today is the fruition of that very hard work,” she added.
She described the inaugural flight as a huge success. “It was a full flight coming in. And it was just so nice to be when we’re in Narita Airport, watching the people load on the flight to Saipan,” she said.
CPA board chair Kimberlyn King-Hinds hopes the first direct flight between Japan and the CNMI is the catalyst not only to strengthen the Japanese market or tourism industry, but for other things in terms of strengthening the relationship between Japan and the CNMI and creating other opportunities for the economy.
Skymark assistant general manager John Furuya said that many of the passengers aboard the inaugural flight were businessmen, that the beginning of December in Japan is also a very good time to invest.
Furuya said they had to go through a lot of things such as regulatory requirements to make sure that each step of the process is done right, particularly since “this is our very first international operation,” said Furuya.
He stressed that the safety of passengers is their highest priority. “So, we’re very glad that everything now goes very well and smooth as we expected,” he said.
It bodes well for Skymark that its inaugural flight to Saipan arrived a little earlier than scheduled. “I need to check the time. Because we are currently keeping the best on-time performance in Japan,” said Furuya of the three-hour flight.
He said 80% of the passengers last Friday were businessmen and media from Japan.
Furuya hinted at expanding the number of Skymark’s flights, saying they will work for more flights not only from Narita but also from other areas in Japan—for them to come to fly to the CNMI.
Skymark currently has 150 flights a day in Japan and operates 29 Boeing 737-800 planes.
When asked if Skymark has concerns about the Saipan airport’s facilities, Furuya said, “Currently, we don’t see any problems or any difficulties. Everything goes very smooth. And we are very thankful. We’re absolutely satisfied.”
Furuya noted that Super Typhoon Yutu struck Saipan a year ago, so they understand that there’s still few things under construction or in recovery, adding that they have been assured by CPA, the CNMI government, as well as the U.S. Customs and Border Protection and Transportation Security Administration, of further improvements.
Furuya said that tickets for the Skymark promotion called “Saipan Special” are almost all sold out.
Skymark introduced the “Saipan Special” to mark the launch of the new route between Tokyo (Narita) and Saipan. Tickets is on sale from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31, 2019.
Under the “Saipan Special” promotion, from Nov. 29, 2019 to March 28, 2020, Skymark’s special offer for one-way fare per passenger is $38 or 3,800 in Japan yen.
Taxes and fuel surcharge, however, will be imposed in addition to the applicable air fare.
Furuya said a lot of people from the CNMI have availed of the promotion.
Delta Airlines, which used to provide a direct flight to Tokyo, ceased operation in the CNMI about a year and a half ago, while Japan Airlines stopped operation in the CNMI 14 years ago. That makes Skymark the sole airline with direct flights from Tokyo
Kyoko Okada, 51, who was among the passengers of the inaugural flight, said it was a very nice trip.
Okada, who works in the Japan tourism industry, said this is her 10th trip to Saipan. She will spend two nights on the island.
Yusuke Kohase, a staff reporter of Japan-based Aviation Wire, said it’s his first trip to Saipan at Skymark’s invitation. Kohase said the flight was very comfortable.
“I’m very excited to see Saipan,” he said.
Last March 22, Skymark made a historic touchdown on Saipan with a chartered B737-800 plane carrying 173 passengers, making it the first Japanese carrier to fly directly to Saipan since Japan Airlines withdrew from the CNMI in 2005.
From March to September this year, Skymark operated 19 charter flights to Saipan.