"Due to the spread of the coronavirus, our airline company will begin operating cargo flights as the first stage of commercial operations," said Shingo Nishida, president of Zipair Tokyo. (Yoshifumi Fukuda)

NARITA, Chiba Prefecture--Japan's new low-cost passenger carrier Zipair Tokyo Inc. was forced to debut recently carrying only cargo on its first flight due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Based at Narita Airport, the company originally entered the budget carrier market intending to operate mid- and long-distance international passenger flights from mid-May.

It remains unclear when Zipair Tokyo can begin carrying passengers, but cabin attendants and trainees are continuing their training to prepare for their first flights.

On the afternoon of June 3, about 100 Zipair employees cheered on the observation deck at Narita Airport as they watched an airplane approach. Sporting green lines on both sides of the white and gray fuselage, the aircraft's design was inspired by a flying arrow.

It was Zipair's first flight to Bangkok. The airplane took off shortly after, rising into the sky and rocking its wings to show appreciation to the crew on the ground below for their send-off.

"I was so moved," said new staff member Akiko Kadowaki, 34. "The way the airplane flew into the sky seemed to symbolize Zipair's climb into the future, and it had a sobering effect on me."

Kadowaki aspired to become a flight attendant trainee more than 10 years ago, but personal reasons caused her to give up on it for a while. After working as an instructor at junior and senior high schools, she received an official job offer from Zipair last summer.

"When I wanted to tell my students that dreams would come true and that their efforts would be rewarded, I looked back on myself, thinking, 'What about me?' and I decided to take a shot at my dream for the last time," the mother of three said.

Kadowaki began working part time at Zipair late last year at a time when the budget carrier was swamped with work to launch its services, before being hired full time.

The rookie employee has had a front-row seat from which to witness the crippling impact on the airline industry caused by the spread of COVID-19. Kadowaki said even though it might affect her adversely it made her think the company should delay the hiring process.

After she visited her workplace on April 1 to attend a simple entrance ceremony and complete employment procedures, Kadowaki received training and lectures at home to protect against COVID-19. She started full-fledged training at Zipair facilities in June.

Set up by Japan Airlines Co., Zipair was initially set to launch operations to Bangkok on May 14 and to Seoul on July 1. However, the company postponed both services due to weak demand stemming from travel restrictions imposed by governments across the world.

Zipair recruited 50 experienced cabin attendants between October and December last year, with 60 flight attendant trainees, including new university graduates, joining the company in April. While veteran staff the company employs are ready for duties, the initial plan to train the new recruits is now behind schedule by about one month, the company said.

Despite the delay, Akane Kono, 23, who joined the company as a new graduate, said she doesn't feel particularly worried or frustrated over the future.

"We think of it as being given extra time to prepare ourselves to provide the best services to customers, and we devote ourselves to training and drills," Kono said.

"Seeing the first flight off made me determined that it is my turn now to make many people smile," she added.

Fellow newcomer Kadowaki agreed.

"I don't feel impatient because, just like the president (Shingo Nishida) said, there is no doubt that customers will be back, and all we have to do is prepare for takeoff when the time comes," Kadowaki said.

The pandemic has frozen air travel all over the world, with some experts saying that passenger demand has "evaporated."

Zipair's president pushed back at that notion, insisting that the company "definitely has a role to play after the coronavirus settles down." 

Nishida said the unexpected delay in offering passenger flights had a silver lining in that it was a good opportunity for staff to improve their skills before the big day when passenger flights begin.

"I hope they grow not only as flight attendants but also as Zipair crew members who perform multifaceted functions in planning and other areas," Nishida said.