Photo/IllutrationRound-trip flights between Osaka and Seoul priced at 1,000 yen ($9.21) are offered on the ena website. (Teruko Tanibe)

Low-cost carriers (LCCs) have slashed the prices of round-trip flights connecting Japan and South Korea to as low as 1,000 yen ($9.21) in a desperate attempt to fill seats amid the diplomatic row between Tokyo and Seoul.

The South Korean LCCs have seen the number of Japan-bound passengers plummet since the bilateral dispute erupted last year and some flight routes between the countries have already been suspended.

However, the airlines’ low prices appear aimed more at retaining their arrival and departure slots at airports in Japan than trying to make a profit from ticket sales.

The dirt-cheap prices have already raised eyebrows in the tourism industry.

“This is unbelievable,” Yukinori Toyama, an employee at travel company Airplus Co. in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, said of the fares.

The company runs a website called ena that mainly offers cheaply priced plane tickets.

Toyama, 50, who is in charge of buying LCC flight tickets, said he started feeling that something was wrong with the ticket pricing around the last week of August.

Normally, the lowest prices for round-trip flights between Osaka and Seoul are 6,000 yen to 7,000 yen. But they now cost 1,000 yen at Air Seoul and 1,200 yen for Eastar Jet, two South Korean LLCs.

Prices fluctuate daily according to booking ratios. But prices for round-trip flights between Fukuoka and Seoul have fallen to around 3,000 yen from about 5,000 yen.

Another South Korean low-cost airline, T’way Air, charges 2,000 yen for the same round-trip ticket.

“Prices for flights to and from Fukuoka have particularly come down, and that trend is affecting flights for Osaka and Narita,” Toyama said. “People tend to avoid traveling abroad in November since it is before the winter holiday. So that may further push prices down.

“If you’re considering traveling to South Korea, now is the time,” he said.

The diplomatic brouhaha started after the South Korean Supreme Court in October last year ordered Japanese companies to pay compensation to former wartime laborers. Japan rejected the decision, and the dispute has since spilled into the trade and security fields.

The number of Japanese visiting South Korea has actually increased during the row.

However, South Koreans have increasingly shunned trips to Japan.

According to the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO), 201,200 people visited Japan from South Korea in September, a drop of 58.1 percent from 479,733 in the same month the previous year. The number of travelers from China and Singapore to Japan has increased percentages in the double-digits year on year.

T’way Air has suspended flights to and from Saga, Oita, Kumamoto and Kagoshima since August.

“Travelers from South Korea to Japan account for 90 percent of passengers on the four routes,” a company official said. “It’s a tough situation for us.”

T’way Air still operates three flights from Fukuoka Airport to Seoul and Daegu. It has started a campaign offering one-way tickets to the two destinations for 1,000 yen.

Behind the airlines’ extremely cheap prices is the competition for the limited number of departure and arrival slots at Fukuoka Airport.

The Aviation Law allows authorities to limit the number of arrivals and departures over a certain period of time to ensure safety. Five airports, including Fukuoka, Haneda and Narita, are designated as “busy airports” subject to such regulations.

Fukuoka Airport is currently at the maximum limit of 35 arrivals and departures per hour.

According to the International Air Transport Division of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, airlines and airports each year rearrange their flight schedules in summer and winter so that their arrivals and departures fall within the designated number of slots.

At especially busy airports, airlines can lose the right to operate their allotted number of flights if their operating records, including passenger loads, fail to meet designated standards.

Competition is rife among airlines vying to gain slots at particularly popular airports. Airlines need to keep operating regular flights to maintain their slots for cash-cow routes.

“We don’t want to lose our vested interests. So we have to continue our flight services to have good operating records,” the T’way Air official said.

(This article was written by Satoru Kamibayashi and Teruko Tanibe.)