Inbound tourism to Japan has begun to recover since the easing of COVID-19 border controls but a shortage of staff has become an increasing problem for the airline industry, as many who left their jobs during the pandemic have not returned.

Airport staff quitting due to the sharp decline in travelers during the height of the pandemic has resulted in a more than 20 percent decrease in security inspectors nationwide.

Although airlines have made concerted efforts to secure personnel for ground operations, many occupations in the industry require qualifications and experience, meaning a return to an adequate supply of staff will take time.

"Forty percent of the security staff at Fukuoka Airport quit during the pandemic. We don't have a normal situation," said Tatsuya Yamanaka, an assistant manager of the human resources department at security firm Nishikei, which conducts security inspections at the airport.

Photo taken on Feb. 4, 2023, shows Fukuoka Airport's international terminal crowded with passengers. (Kyodo)

While the company had been capable of handling six passenger lanes at security checkpoints for international routes before the pandemic, it can currently only manage three to four at a time.

At the international terminal, where the number of visitors to Japan from South Korea, Southeast Asia and other regions has increased significantly since the relaxation of border measures, it is now not uncommon to see long lines of people snaking through the baggage inspection area, with waiting times often over 30 minutes. But congestion is also a daily occurrence for domestic flights.

"There are many jobs that require national qualifications for inspectors, so even if people get hired, they cannot be put into the field right away," Yamanaka lamented.

According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, there were some 5,600 security inspectors nationwide in September 2022, the latest available figures. In contrast, around 7,400 people held those jobs in April 2020.

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"There is a nationwide shortage (of inspectors)," a ministry official in charge of civil aviation said.

The growing labor shortage has also affected other international airports in the country. The operator of Sendai International Airport has said it cannot keep pace with the number of daily flights as they return to pre-pandemic levels, admitting that crowds will be an inconvenience for travelers in the meantime.

While New Chitose, Chubu and Kansai airports are not experiencing staffing issues for security or ground crew, preparations are under way to ensure sufficient personnel for the anticipated increases of flights inbound from China.

At Fukuoka Airport, the total number of airport employees, including ground staff and shop clerks, has fallen by almost 20 percent from fiscal 2019 to around 6,500.

A joint briefing featuring 14 companies, including All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines, is held on Jan. 28, 2023, at Fukuoka Airport to introduce various staffing positions. (Kyodo)

The recent increase in passenger numbers at the airport stands in sharp contrast to the situation at the peak of the pandemic. Airport passenger numbers, which had dropped to roughly 140,000 in May 2020, rebounded to 1.78 million by November 2022 -- approximately 80 percent of the monthly average before the outbreak.

Fukuoka International Airport Co., which operates Fukuoka Airport, held its first joint briefing at the airport in late January. Fourteen companies, including All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines and Nishikei set up booths with about 570 attendees. Various jobs were on display, including baggage loading and aircraft refueling roles.

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Airlines are rushing to handle the extra burden at major hubs such as Haneda and Narita airports, which see many travelers.

ANA is resuming the hiring of new staff and providing labor support between airports, acknowledging it has "temporary shortages." Around 70 percent of group employees who were moved to other companies or local governments have returned.

JAL Ground Service, based in Tokyo and in charge of ground operations, is also pushing for staff transfers between airports.