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Kogod School of Business alum and Japan Airlines VP of global sales in the Americas, Steve Myer, considers our return to the airways amid Japan’s Olympic-sized challenge.

Steve Myer

Air travel is taking off again in the United States as eager passengers become fully vaccinated against the novel coronavirus. With Tokyo set to hold the Olympics at the end of July, thousands of those hopeful passengers should be getting ready to fly to Japan. But international Games fans are barred from entering the country, and with only 5.6 percent of the Japanese population fully vaccinated, it’s unlikely airlines will be carrying many domestic travelers.

For Steve Myer, Kogod MBA alum and regional vice president for global sales in the Americas at Japan Airlines, the pandemic has proved a persistent yet provocative challenge.

“I was thinking about how we are impacted by the Olympics right now, and I was thinking about my business statistics class at Kogod,” Myer reflects. “I really enjoyed the class because, for the first time, I saw math being applied for a reason. So, learning about forecasting and how you can set certain confidence rates through math to achieve an outcome was a huge revelation to me.”

Check out a recent webinar with Dean Delaney, Myer, and fellow alum Christine Valls.

Myer first became interested in business in Asia after taking a trip with a friend to Thailand during college. He ended up staying in Thailand for six months before returning to the States and marrying his passion for travel with his career, working for United Airlines, Asiana Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Thai Airways, and, for the past six years, Japan Airlines. Myer credits Kogod with his ability to adapt to the radically different business approaches he’s encountered in his sales roles.

“My comparative management systems course at Kogod looked at how overseas companies conduct their management style. That course has served me really well because I don’t think it’s easy for Americans to work for foreign companies. Our mindset and culture for doing business are so different,” says Myer. “Japanese companies always talk about ‘kaizen,’ which means continuous improvement. You do something, look at the results, and tweak it and do it over again. Americans, we don’t embrace that. We just do it one way to get it done, and if it fails, we try something else. But in Japan, it is more of a gradual process. Learning about this in Kogod has helped me tremendously.”

Myer is finding the concept of kaizen to be especially helpful right now. The slowdown caused by the pandemic has been an opportunity for him and his company to review everything they do, turning the uncertainties of their new business reality into advantages. “For our sales team, we have had the chance to review our sales practices, update our internal training, and adapt to working from home,” says Myer. “Fortunately, Japan Airlines was an early adopter of Zoom, which we first started using back in 2019. We made use of Zoom early on during the pandemic with monthly ‘all hands sales calls’ to keep up our communication, focus, and input from all members. As we progressed each month, we saw improvement in how we handled challenges, and we slowly got better at our approach with incremental and continuous improvement.”

While Myer’s team has been successfully navigating the internal challenges of the pandemic, planning for customers’ return to the air has been harder to tackle. Under normal circumstances, Japan Airlines has decades of historical data to draw from to predict demand for air travel, especially for an international event like the Olympics.

“Often, we share data with partners that we work with,” Myer explains. “We’ve worked with British Airways between Japan and the UK to look at when they had the Olympics in 2012. We also worked with American Airlines between Asia and the US, and they carried a lot of people to Rio for the Olympics back in 2016.”

But COVID-19 has been an unparalleled test for the airline industry, and with so many uncertainties still surrounding the rollout of the 2021 Olympics—including a frustratingly low Japanese vaccination rate—any data from previous Games has been made moot. Japan Airlines simply can’t use past historical patterns to predict actual ticket sales for this year’s competition.

“Restrictions from the Japanese government have greatly impacted our sales because those who can travel are limited, and those who are willing to travel under such restrictive guidelines are even more limited,” says Myer. “We’re limited on the number of passengers we can carry to Japan each week, so the challenge is how do we try to meet the limits and not exceed them? This is uncharted territory, so we’re learning as we go week-by-week.”

He adds that cargo shipments have been a much-needed boon amidst the plunge in passenger numbers. “So many people who are staying home are ordering online from Amazon and other places,” says Myer. “That has sustained us because our cargo sales are higher than ever in the recent past.”

Japan has a reputation for being organized and systematic, so it is a surprise to many that their vaccination rollout isn’t following suit. Myer offers up an anecdote to explain what he sees as the differences between the American and Japanese approaches to vaccine distribution.

“I go to a coffee shop for breakfast when I’m in Japan, and I order eggs, but I don’t enjoy having the salad that comes with my breakfast,” Myer explains. “If I order from the menu, it is right every single time, but if I say, ‘Hold the salad,’ it’s just going to throw everything off. So the flexibility isn’t quite there, but once things are set they are done really well. When you think about logistics, I think the US has had a huge success with rolling out the vaccine to Walgreens and CVS, but they don’t really have pharmacies in convenience stores and supermarkets in Japan. That said, similar to the US, large vaccination sites are opening, and progress is being made slowly but surely.”

As optimism about the future of travel returns for the recently vaccinated—even if it is slower in some countries—Myer considers how travel may change, even in permanent ways. “My hope is that we will see more of the vaccine passports, and that will facilitate more people’s desire to travel,” he says. “There is a term within the travel industry called ‘revenge travel’—basically, there is so much pent-up demand to travel that people really travel because they have been itching and ready to go for so long.”

Myer is crossing his fingers that armchair travelers will slowly swap recliners for jetways and window seats as travel dreams become reality again. “My hope for Japan is that once the Olympics are behind them and the vaccination rates go up, it will start to make travel more possible,” he says. “We are testing right now with VeriFLY and IATA Travel Passes, and we will just need the government approvals to say, ‘Yes, we can accept this as official documentation.’ Once that happens, then I think it’ll really open up.”

This writer thinks the best parts of taking a trip are the planning stage and the anticipation. I’m ready to map out must-see destinations and research the logistics of traveling with a passport and a vaccine visa. Bon voyage!