Go Early: Japanese Flyers Get Some Bathroom Advice

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Issei Kato / Reuters

Passengers wait in the departure area of Narita International Airport on April 29, 2009

Like many things in Japan, the message is subtle. At least Japan's All Nippon Airways (ANA) hopes it is, now that the nation's second largest airline has started quietly asking passengers in Japanese to use the bathroom before boarding any of its 38 domestic flights or four international flights between Tokyo and Singapore. The request is part of the airline's "ecological flight" program, now in its fourth year, to reduce its carbon footprint by lightening planes' loads and reducing fuel consumption. Through the month of October, ANA aims to reduce wgat it carries into the atmosphere by as much as 4.2 tons by asking passengers to pack — and board — lighter.

Discretion and innovation in the world of toilets are probably not a surprise to anyone who has ever used a bathroom in Japan, where Toto — the Japanese company that manufactures johns that can do everything but your taxes — is omnipresent and the "sound princess," a fake flushing noise to disguise that of urination, is installed in virtually every public restroom. Nevertheless, ANA has apparently decided to spare its non-Japanese-speaking customers the potential embarrassment of preboarding potty talk. Though the Japanese-language announcement video at the gate for domestic departures politely advises travelers to use the bathroom before boarding, the English announcement makes no such suggestion. The English video does encourage passengers to "think about the earth and the sky above," saying that a lighter aircraft means less carbon dioxide emission, but it stops short of suggesting a preboard run to the loo.

ANA spokeswoman Megumi Tezuka says she's surprised by the attention the program has received in recent days, since the program was announced in a press release on Sept. 10. Why isn't the suggestion made to non-Japanese-speaking travelers? "We didn't think [telling people to use the restroom] was a very important point of the program," says Tezuka. "We didn't think there would be such big news about it." Among ANA's other green programs include recycling plastic bottles and paper cups, using lighter items in the cabin (such as plastic bottles for wine instead of glass ones) and providing chopsticks made from the wood from thinned domestic forests.

The airline industry is suffering worldwide, but ANA has fared better than its main competitor, Japan Airlines (JAL), which has three times the number of international flights as ANA. While JAL recently announced job cuts before it starts a massive restructuring plan with government help, ANA's image has been improving — in part because of moves like this one. Rather than cut services and leave passengers in the cold — remember the disappearing blankets? — to reduce costs and be a greener airline, ANA is asking passengers to get involved. And in Japan, sometimes a little suggestion is met with a lot of cooperation. How effective the plan is in actually reducing fuel consumption — given that many travelers pass the time at terminals by eating and drinking before their flight — will be evaluated next month.