The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

From the UK to Australia and now Japan, Alison Espley is no stranger to travel and to taking on new challenges and seizing new opportunities.

As managing director for Japan and Pacific Sales at United Airlines, Espley is spearheading the award-winning airline’s—United was named “Best Place to Work” by Human Rights Campaign—market positioning in Japan, while also establishing herself as the face of United in the country.

Speaking to The Journal, Espley sounded an up-beat note, expressing enthusiasm about United’s products and services offerings, as well as the carrier’s plans for future growth in the Asia–Pacific region.

Can you introduce yourself and tell us how you come to be in Japan?
I joined United Airlines back in 1987. I had several jobs within the airline, mostly within sales, until I moved to Australia in 2007. Earlier this year, when my present position came up, I simply couldn’t resist the chance to live and work in Japan—a place that is so important to United. Japan is also such a cultural change for me, and that was a great attraction.

What are your main goals for the airline in Japan?
From my perspective as the leader of the team here, I have three key sales strategies that are important to me: one is to be extremely visible in the market, to be the face of United. And, since I’ve been here, I’ve spent time with our travel agency partners, corporate customers, and frequent flyers.

The second thing is to aggressively seek new business—whether that is leisure travelers or corporate business, or whether that is SMEs or individual travellers—and give them a reason to be loyal to United. The third thing is to create an environment where people consider United a company they can do business with easily.

What can you say about United’s positioning in this market?
United remains committed to the Asia–Pacific region, and Japan is a hugely important part of that. We currently offer 140 weekly flights from Japan to 11 cities, seven of which are key hubs within the US mainland, as well as Honolulu, Guam, Incheon, South Korea, and Singapore. In addition, we serve the Guam hub from six cities in Japan

What’s more, we recently celebrated 25 years of service from Sendai and Sapporo to Guam. We have a joint venture arrangement with our partners at All Nippon Airways (ANA) on trans-Pacific flights, which is very important business strategy to us, and which we will continue to develop to provide our customers in Japan with more convenient options of flight schedule between Japan and the US.

How are customers benefiting from the joint venture with ANA on the trans-Pacific market?
The joint venture began in 2011, and has gone from strength to strength; our customers tell us that they like it. The key thing—in terms of benefits—is that you can choose to fly with United or ANA as if it was one carrier between Japan and the US. We are able to coordinate our schedules and offerings to give you the most choice.

For example, ANA recently added a service to Houston and they chose to operate in the morning to complement our departure in the afternoon. The joint venture covers 66 countries and 11,000 daily flights, and it continues to grow. Recently, ANA added additional services to Singapore and Bangkok to respond to customer needs and will add Kuala Lumpur in September.

Whereas we at United used to offer a number of flights from Tokyo/Narita to Asian cities, now we let ANA do that flying—that’s what they are good at, and they transfer customers to those cities. We, in turn, are able to utilize those aircraft, offering non-stop options to customers. So, from Japan, we have been able to inaugurate Haneda to San Francisco since last year.

What plans do you have to improve customer services?
As well as growing our global networks, one of the key focus areas has been investing in our customer products and services. In the past four years, we have taken delivery of over 200 aircraft, and we still have a significant order book—that includes the Dreamliner 787, which is a game-changing aircraft. Indeed, we are the only US carrier that operates the 787 in Japan.

Our customers love it—it not only burns less fuel, it produces less carbon emissions, it has larger windows, and has a cabin that is more pressurized than is usually the case, thereby removing jet lag. It truly is an experience.

On-board, we recently upgraded our meal offering both in the premium cabin and in economy class. In economy class, the customer now receives a three-course meal served with nibbles first, and then the main meal, followed by ice cream or mousse, with fruit and a complimentary beer or wine. And in premium class, we’ve had a tremendous upgrade to our Japanese meal in our first class and business class food offering.

We’ve also been upgrading our airport lounges around the world, including here at Narita, which will be finished by this fall.

Technology plays a very important part in our offerings, that’s why we are in the process of re-launching our website, so that it provides new functionality and new ability to search based your personal preferences.

Our app—called United—is used by millions of customers. As well as making and changing bookings, you can use it to book an Uber taxi, download your passport details, and manage a complete online check in, and so on.

We also have Wi-Fi on 90 percent of our mainline fleet now, and that will be completed by the end of the year. Wi-Fi is something that would have been considered unusual and different previously, but it is what customers have come to expect. So there is a lot happening on the products and services front, and lots of great news to share.

What can you tell us about your success in business?
From my experience, the key thing is to be passionate about what you do, and if you are passionate about it, it will be infectious. I am lucky to be working for a company that actively supports diversity in the business environment.

And I’ve also been fortunate to have had a wonderful number of mentors and managers who have supported me. Several of those are well-known to the [American Chamber of Commerce in Japan (ACCJ)] as previous members.

So I count myself as very lucky. I don’t consider myself as having done things differently to other people. I think I’ve been myself, and I’ve been fortunate to have been supported along the way.

Are you optimistic about this market and, if so, why?
I’m generally optimistic, and I continue to believe that Japan will play an extremely important part in United. It is a mature market, and it does have some challenges, in terms of the devaluation of the yen and in the fact that fewer people are traveling from Japan, whilst in-bound travel is very strong.

On the flip side, a weaker yen is a good thing for Japanese exporters, and if it’s good for those companies, then it should be good for their employees, and that should encourage both business and leisure traffic as well.

And as a company that is well-established here, including having a strong relationship with local carrier ANA, I feel we are well-positioned to take full advantage of our being here. And I, personally, am very excited by the opportunity to live and work in Japan. So I’m very excited for the future.