Airline Takes Off by Flying Japanese to Grand Canyon

<i> Lustig is a Chatsworth free-lance writer. </i>

Keisuke Suzuki smiles as he waves to the group of Japanese tourists boarding the airplane. Inside, the door firmly shut, a flight attendant says in Japanese the universal “Fasten your seat belts, no smoking please” as the aircraft noses toward the nearby runway.

A flight from Tokyo to Yokohama? No, it’s Burbank to the Grand Canyon. The Suzuki family has carved out a unique niche in the world of air charter services: The San Fernando Valley-based National Park Airways has one regular destination--the Grand Canyon--and one customer base--Japanese tourists, more than 15,000 a year.

Suzuki, 27, estimates that 95% of all Japanese visitors who fly to the Grand Canyon from the Los Angeles area do so on his airline because it caters to the Japanese tourist and operates every day of the year.

“Everybody in the business thought we wouldn’t last this long,” he said of the eight-year history of National Park Airways, which handles the flights, and its parent organization, California Air Tours, which handles the overall tour business.


Companies Skeptical

Other charter companies were skeptical when the service began, Suzuki says, because his family, looking for a business that they could own, knew nothing about running an airline or tour operation. His father, Mike, 56, was working in research and development at Honda after moving here with his wife Yoriko, 53, in 1976.

“We knew of a travel agent who was chartering planes whenever Japanese tourists wanted to go to the Grand Canyon,” he recalled, “and we figured that we could do a better job by having our own aircraft.”

The service used rented airplanes and operated from Van Nuys Airport; its weekly passenger load sometimes could be counted on one hand. By 1981, when California Air Tours moved to Burbank, the family cleaned out its savings and purchased its first airplane, a six-seater that had room for a pilot, tour guide and four paying passengers.

Today, a typical flying day begins at 8:30 a.m. when the three green, orange and white company-owned buses carrying the tourists wheel up to the Martin Executive Terminal on the west side of Burbank Airport. The flight crew has already inspected the aircraft; it could be one or more of the company’s nine-seaters or its 30-passenger Douglas DC-3. The tourists, greeted by Suzuki, board for the 2-hour flight east. They will return about 9 hours later. On an average day, 40 passengers take the flight, but some days as few as two show up. Other days, the passenger load tops 200.

Newlyweds, students and retirees make up most of the company’s business, with some flights consisting of nothing but honeymooners--especially in April, October and November.

‘Be Their Longest Vacation’

“Weddings are on specific good-luck days and weekends on the Japanese calendar,” Suzuki said. “The husbands can only take seven to nine days off out of their whole lives. This is going to be their longest vacation.”

The slowest time of year for the round-trip tour, which costs $295 per person, is late December and early January.

“One of the big problems is the language barrier, so they totally rely on the travel agent,” said Suzuki, a naturalized American citizen born in Tokyo who is fluent in Japanese. “Japanese tourists want it all set up in advance, and they’re afraid to get on a regular tour in this country. They like the fact we speak their language, and it’s easier for us to understand their way of business and their culture.”

The average passenger load for the first two years of operation was no more than 20 people monthly at $245 per person, with most Japanese tourists flying to Las Vegas first, then boarding charter aircraft from there to the Grand Canyon, Suzuki said.

To counter that, his company began offering a complete package--arranging for all transportation from hotel to the Grand Canyon and back--to the Japanese tour companies that made the reservations. The Suzukis bought a van to bring passengers from Los Angeles hotels to Burbank Airport and subcontracted with Grand Canyon tour guides to take the passengers upon arrival. Then the family plunged toward permanency with the purchase of a second twin-engine aircraft. “There is an old Japanese saying,” Suzuki said. “You have to stick on the rock for three years and see how it turns out.”

According to Dan Reid, National Parks Airways director of operations and one of the company’s 14 employees, the company’s biggest external problem is the weather at the Grand Canyon. While fog or snow may close the Arizona airport only a few times a year, Reid said he has to be ready to bus the passengers back because the tourists are on such a tight schedule.

“We need someone who can work with the flexible number of people we’re carrying,” said Kiyshi Fukazawa, assistant manager of Jetours, a travel agency that uses National Park Airways for the Grand Canyon tours. Working with a charter company allows the tour operator to set up his own itinerary, Fukazawa said. He admitted that paying a little more for a charter is worth it to get the service that his firm needs.

Tsugunori Yoshimoto of Teikikanko--it means “daily tour” in Japanese--says his three-year association with the Suzukis has been problem-free. “There are other companies that go to the Grand Canyon, but CAT has the buses and the connections as well.”

The only mechanical problem for the airline occurred Dec. 7, Reid said. While landing at Burbank Airport with a full load of passengers, the plane’s hydraulic brake line burst, forcing Reid, the pilot, to let the aircraft roll to a stop. The plane was back in the air the next day, said Brad Babic, airline maintenance director.

With the Burbank-to-Grand Canyon operation almost routine, Suzuki is looking at expanding to include round-trip charter flights from San Francisco to Yosemite and from Las Vegas to the Grand Canyon, with a return flight to Burbank.