From flight attendant to CEO: Safety first for JAL's first female boss

Tottori Mitsuko has taken anything but a conventional path to the top at Japan Airlines (JAL). The 59-year-old started out as a flight attendant in the mid-1980s, and in April this year she became the airline's first female CEO.

She tells NHK about her strategy for JAL as the airline industry evolves in the post-pandemic environment.

Tottori Mitsuko began her journey to the top of corporate Japan as a flight attendant with local operator Toa Domestic Airlines in 1985. The firm later merged with JAL, where Tottori honed her inflight customer-facing skills for decades.

Tottori Mitsuko started her career as a flight attendant with a domestic operator that merged with Japan Airlines.

She has taken on various management roles, overseeing the airline's flight attendants division, and most recently as a senior vice president in charge of customer service. Tottori first joined JAL's board of directors in 2023. But something that happened during her very first year on the job has informed her highest priority: safety.

"Aviation industry cannot exist without proper safety"

The summer of 1985 was marred by what remains as the worst single aircraft accident in aviation history. A JAL jumbo crashed into a mountain north of Tokyo, killing 520 crew and passengers. The tragedy sent shockwaves around the world and impressed upon Tottori the importance of safety.

Tottori says the crash of a JAL jumbo jet in 1985 that killed 520 people on board determined her vocational mindset: safety as the highest priority.

"Our business cannot exist without proper safety," she said during an interview with NHK. "I believe my strength lies in risk management, as my experience as a flight attendant involved constant contact with risk.

"We place high importance on several principles. One is that we (staff) must directly see the actual wreckage of the plane (from the 1985 disaster) at our Safety Promotion Center to truly get a feel for the accident.

"Then, we need to listen to people who were affected. By learning about it first-hand using their own senses, I believe each employee can internalize the importance of safety."

JAL employees learn about the 1985 disaster at the airline's Safety Promotion Center where the wreckage of the crashed jet is preserved.

Evidence of that safety-first approach came at the start of this year when a JAL flight crew successfully evacuated everyone on board a burning jet at Tokyo's Haneda Airport. The plane had collided on a runway with a Japan Coast Guard aircraft, which recorded five fatalities. But all JAL passengers and crew evacuated safely.

A JAL crew of 12 evacuated all 367 passengers from an aircraft that collided with a Japan Coast Guard aircraft in January.

"I am extremely proud that even though close to half the crew had been on the job just a few months, they had a strong sense of their safety mission and performed their duties well," Tottori said.

Tottori Mitsuko was appointed CEO of Japan Airlines in April.

Challenges for the aviation industry

As the airline industry bounces back from the pandemic, it faces other challenges, including criticism of its environmental impact. Tottori aims to resolve those issues and strengthen corporate partnerships.

Recent earnings reports show that the aviation industry is recovering from the impact of the COVID pandemic. However, it now faces other challenges, including labor shortages.

"The airline industry is facing major challenges, including environmental issues and staff shortages. However, as the problems grow bigger, it gets less likely that an individual company can solve them," said Tottori.

"We would like to work together with others inside and outside the industry to come up with solutions. That will include environmental measures, such as the use of sustainable aviation fuel that produces less CO2, and human resource development."

A continuing challenge

Tottori's comments about safety are especially timely for Japan Airlines, whose passenger planes have been involved in a spate of minor incidents this year that have culminated in an official warning from the Transport Ministry. In the most recent case, the wings of two JAL planes struck each other while they were on the parking apron at Tokyo's Haneda Airport.

When her appointment first hit the headlines, Tottori was in the spotlight for her unique career path. Now she faces a true test in ensuring safety standards and guiding JAL through intense global competition.

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