Onboard Toki Air’s Inaugural Flight: The Steel Crested Ibis Carries Passengers at Long Last

Over three years after being founded in July 2020, Niigata-based Japanese regional airline Toki Air finally launched operations. On January 31, 2024, it operated its first revenue flight, from Niigata to Sapporo Okadama.

I had a chance to take the inaugural flight so continue reading to see what it was like and to learn more about the airline.

Toki Air Launch
After multiple delays, Toki Air finally launched operations at the end of January 2024.

Toki Air: Japan’s First Locally-Owned Airline in 15 Years

In July 2009, Fuji Dream Airlines launched with two Embraer E170s. The airline has since grown to operate a fleet of 16 aircraft. Multiple other airlines, like ANA’s Peach and JAL’s ZIPAIR, launched since then. No airline unaffiliated with one of the major airlines launched in Japan until today, though.

Toki Air traces its origins back to December 2019 when a preparatory company began work on the airline. Toki Air itself was founded on July 29, 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic started to bring the travel industry to a standstill. To get started, the company received investment from several Niigata-based companies, as well as 1.16 billion yen (just under 10 million dollars at that time’s exchange rate) from Niigata Prefecture.

In preparation for launch, Toki Air leased two ATR 72-600s from Nordic Aviation Capital. The first aircraft, registered JA01QQ, arrived in Niigata in November 2022. The second aircraft, JA02QQ, touched down at its base for the first time in March 2023.

Toki Air ATR 72 JA01QQ
Toki Air has a fleet of two ATR 72-600s.

Toki Air’s first destination is Sapporo Okadama (a closer look at the inaugural flight will follow later in this article. It expects to connect Niigata with Sendai relatively soon, followed by Nagoya Chubu and Kobe at a later point.

Sado, an island that is part of Niigata Prefecture, is on the airline’s radar too. To be able to serve the route, however, the airline will need to take delivery of its first ATR 42-600S, a variant of the turboprop aircraft that is currently under development and that will have STOL (short take-off and landing) capability.

I shared my thoughts on Toki Air’s network plans and what I think about its business plan a couple of months ago here.

Toki Air Network
Toki Air’s current route and planned network. (Generated using Great Circle Mapper)

A Look Inside a Toki Air ATR 72-600

Toki Air’s ATR 72-600s are in the type’s standard configuration with, as its name suggests, 72 economy class seats. Given the type of routes the aircraft tends to operate, the seats are fairly bare-bones.

Each seat is equipped with a regular seat pocket, a small compartment at the top of the seatback, and a small tray table. Additionally, there are individual air vents too.

The one thing that I felt like Toki Air missed an opportunity on and could have put a bit of extra effort into were headrest covers. While there was a Toyota rent-a-car ad on the side visible to the passenger sitting in the seat behind, there was no Toki Air branding on the headrest covers’ main part.

Toki Air ATR 72 Cabin
Toki Air’s ATR 72s can seat 72 people.
Toki Air ATR 72 Cabin
Toki Air ATR 72 Cabin
Headrest covers.

Toki Air Inaugural Flight: The Steel Crested Ibis Finally Takes Off

Toki Air operated its inaugural flight on January 31, 2024. The flight, BV101 from Niigata to Sapporo Okadama, was “sold out” within a minute or two after being made available for booking on the morning of January 19, 2024. While I failed to secure a seat then, I was lucky to grab a seat 24 hours later when unpaid reservations expired.

The subsequent flights on the airline’s first day of operations, on the other hand, were nowhere near full. The airline’s first flight from Sapporo to Niigata carried 48 passengers (66.7% load factor), and the second rotation carried 28 and 29 passengers respectively (38.9% and 40.2% load factors).

One More Day to Go

When I arrived at Niigata Airport the evening before the first flight, Toki Air staff was preparing for the next day at the airline’s check-in counters and one of the screens above the counters was counting down the days left until the inaugural flight.

In another part of the airport, one of Toki Air’s captains just finished an interview with the media.

Toki Air Launch
One more day to go.

Outside, one of the airline’s two ATR 72-600s, JA01QQ, was waiting for the first flight.

The other ATR, JA02QQ, is currently undergoing maintenance in Tainan, Taiwan.

Toki Air ATR 72 JA01QQ
JA01QQ resting on Niigata’s apron the day before the inaugural flight.

“This Is Not the Goal But the Start”

The next morning, when I got to the airport around 7AM, Toki Air staff was already hard at work in the central part of the airport’s check-in hall, preparing for an inaugural ceremony celebrating the momentous flight.

Over a dozen guests including the Niigata Prefecture governor, Niigata City mayor, Toki Air representative director, Tokyo Civil Aviation Bureau’s Niigata office head, and heads of Niigata offices of a few different Japanese and foreign airlines including ANA, JAL, Korean Air, and China Southern Airlines joined the event.

Toki Air Inaugural Ceremony
Some of the inaugural ceremony’s guests.

Hideyo Hanazumi, the Niigata Prefecture governor who is also the chairman of the Niigata Airport Improvement and Promotion Office, was the first to speak. After thanking everyone involved, he said “Of course, this is not the goal. This is the start,” hinting at the long road that Toki Air has ahead to become a well-recognized and profitable airline.

He also noted that Okadama Airport has different advantages than the larger Sapporo New Chitose Airport including being closer to the city and serving as a hub for JAL’s Hokkaido Air System which offers an extensive network of routes to other destinations around Hokkaido.

Hanazumi was followed by Niigata City’s mayor and Niigata Airport Improvement and Promotion Office’s vice chairman Yaichi Nakahara. Commenting on the route being the first-ever link between Niigata and Okadama Airport, he said he hopes the new flight will increase both business and leisure traffic between Hokkaido and Niigata and help with revitalizing the two regions’ local economies.

He ended his speech quite poetically saying “I hope that Toki Air will fly gracefully and safely like the Crested Ibis of Sado soars in the sky.” Sado, an island that is part of Niigata Prefecture, is well-known for its population of crested ibises (“toki” in Japanese) which gave the name to the new airline.

Toki Air Inaugural Ceremony
Niigata Prefecture’s governor.
Toki Air Inaugural Ceremony
Niigata City’s mayor.

Toki Air’s representative director Masaki Hasegawa was the third to take the stage. On the brink of tears, he started by thanking all of Toki Air’s staff and their families, as well as everyone else involved in getting Toki Air to the point where it was ready to operate its first flight.

In addition to expressing his hope about Toki Air helping to revitalize Niigata’s local economy, Hasegawa also reminisced about his childhood. Reminiscing about the lack of opportunities he had to fly when he was growing up in Niigata, he said he hopes a lot of young people fly on Toki Air.

Toki Air Inaugural Ceremony
Inaugural ceremony stage and calligraphy artwork celebrating the launch.
Toki Air Inaugural Ceremony
Toki Air’s representative director.

The last person to speak at the inaugural ceremony was Yamaguchi Keito, the head of Tokyo Civil Aviation Bureau’s Niigata Airport Office.

He talked about the rigorous airline certification process Toki Air had to go through and the hope he for Toki Air’s growth contributing to the region’s growth and the growth of aviation in Japan in general.

Toki Air Inaugural Ceremony
Tokyo Civil Aviation Bureau Niigata Airport Office’s head.

After the speeches, Toki Air’s representative director was presented with flowers. He was also gifted an artwork made by Tokyo Gakkan Niigata High School’s calligraphy club.

At the end of the inaugural ceremony, all of the guests lined up with “yuruchara” characters including Niigata’s Lerch (a character themed after Theodor von Lerch, an Austro-Hungarian general who introduced skiing to Japan) for a photo shoot.

Toki Air Inaugural Ceremony
Flower gifting ceremony.
Toki Air Inaugural Ceremony
Tokyo Gakkan Niigata High School’s students gifting a calligraphy artwork to Toki Air’s representative director.
Toki Air Inaugural Ceremony
A close-up of the artwork.
Toki Air Inaugural Ceremony
All of the ceremony’s guests.

Smooth Check-in Handled by JAL Staff

Once the inaugural ceremony was over, I (once again) headed over to Toki Air’s counters on the far left side of the check-in hall. There, after waiting two or three minutes in a modest line, I was checked in by a friendly agent who printed my boarding pass as soon as she confirmed my reservation number.

While online check-in was possible, I decided to check in at the counter to get a printed boarding pass (which, unfortunately, ended up being about as generic as it gets).

Toki Air Inaugural Check-in

It is worth noting here that all ground handling was done by staff in JAL uniforms (technically employees of Niigata Koku Service, the sole ground handling company at the airport).

We will have to see whether or not that is a sign of a potential larger-scale partnership with JAL (along the lines of Fuji Dream Airlines’) in the future.

One Gate, Two Flights: Boarding Toki Air’s Inaugural Flight

With the inaugural flight boarding pass in my hand, I headed upstairs to the departure floor and went through security. That took a few minutes as a good number of mostly Toki Air passengers was already in the queue.

The boarding pass indicated the flight as departing from gate 1. In reality, it was gate A since Niigata Airport (at least its domestic terminal) uses letters rather than numbers. An Ibex Airlines flight was departing from the same gate just ten minutes before our flight.

Toki Air Inaugural Flight Departure Gate
Departure gate.

At 9:05AM, an announcement was made that boarding would start at 9:10AM, that there was only one lavatory onboard so those that needed to use it should consider going on the ground instead, and that because we would be walking to the aircraft, we might have to wait outside a bit.

Boarding started as announced with passengers seated in rows 1 through 9 invited to board first, while the Ibex flight to Fukuoka was still boarding. Less than five minutes later, the rest of the passengers were invited to board.

In the passage connecting the gate with the stairs leading to the apron, Toki Air staff was handing out gift bags to commemorate the special occasion.

Toki Air Inaugural Flight Departure Gate
Flight TOK101 to Sapporo Okadama.
Toki Air Inaugural Flight Departure Gate
Toki Air Inaugural Flight Boarding
Gift bags were handed out during boarding.

Outside, people were stopping in front of the aircraft to take photos before getting onboard.

Just as I was making my way to the stairs leading to the apron, a Fuji Dream Airlines Embraer E175 arriving from Nagoya landed behind the Toki Air ATR 72 waiting for its first flight to Sapporo, as if to hand over its status of the most recent non-major airline-affiliated airline in Japan to Toki Air.

Toki Air and Fuji Dream Airlines
Toki Air’s inaugural flight boarding with a Fuji Dream Airlines E175 arriving in the background.
Toki Air ATR 72 in Niigata
All cargo (there was almost none) loaded.
Toki Air ATR 72 in Niigata
Everybody stopped to snap a few photos before getting on board.

At Long Last! A Round of Applause and a Couple of Extra Turns

Onboard, I was welcomed by Shumpei, one of the two flight attendants serving the flight (in the air, they were joined by more staff helping with requests to fill out log books and so on). He, like the other crew members, was wearing a pair of white sneakers to go with the rest of the uniform – a style that a few other airlines employ too.

Settled in my seat, 11B (unfortunately, no more window seats were available by the time I got my ticket), I waited for our departure. First, though, around 9:35AM, the cabin crew made an announcement welcoming everyone onboard, which was followed by a round of applause by the passengers.

Toki Air ATR 72 Crew
Shumpei and Sayuri.

A manual safety demonstration followed before we taxied out of our parking spot seven minutes behind schedule, at 9:37AM. On the apron, well over a dozen staff members waved to send us off. In a park near runway 28 end, even more people were lined up to see this very special flight’s departure.

At 9:46AM, we took off runway 28. As soon as the wheels left the ground, a round of applause echoed through the cabin.

Toki Air Safety Demonstration
First “revenue” safety demonstration.
Toki Air Inaugural Take-Off
The steel crested ibis takes off with passengers onboard at long last.

After take-off, we didn’t make a simple right turn to head toward our destination.

Instead, we first made a 180-degree right turn followed by another 90-degree right turn to fly back toward Niigata Airport and bid it farewell before making a left turn to head toward Sapporo.

Toki Air Inaugural Take-Off
A bonus view of Niigata Airport.
Toki Air Inaugural Flight Path
The extra turns are clearly visible on the FlightRadar24 flight path.

A Friendly Onboard Service and A Well-Stocked Gift Bag

Less than five minutes after take-off, the crew made an announcement permitting the use of seat reclining and tray tables. Another five minutes later, the seatbelt signs were switched off.

At 10AM, onboard service started with the friendly crew handing out manju (Japanese sweets). While this service was limited to the airline’s first few flights, going forward the airline will be offering bottled tea and packaged snacks made by Niigata-based companies.

Toki Air Inaugural Flight Service
Shumpei handing out manju.
Toki Air Inaugural Flight Service

On the inaugural flight, the standard service items – i.e. a bottle of herb tea and a small pack of rice crackers – were included in the gift bag.

The gift bag included a small bag of rice (Niigata Prefecture produces the most rice in Japan) and a box of candies, both in special packaging commemorating Toki Air’s launch.

Additionally, a boarding certificate, a baggage tag, a clear file, a paper model of Toki Air’s ATR, and a magazine were in the bag too. The bag itself was a keepsake too and came with a small storage pouch.

Toki Air Inaugural Flight Service
Edible portion of the gift bag’s contents.
Toki Air Inaugural Flight Service
Boarding certificate, baggage tag, etc.

At 10:15AM, the captain welcomed us onboard, mentioning that we were passing over Akita and would then overfly Aomori and Hakodate before arriving at Okadama Airport on time, at 11:10AM. He also thanked us for joining the special flight.

Five minutes later, the cabin crew passed through the cabin offering a variety of reading materials including a local Niigata newspaper and a magazine about Sapporo.

With that, the in-flight service ended.

Toki Air Seat Pocket
Contents of the seat pocket.
Toki Air Inaugural Flight Service
Sayuri handing out reading materials.
Toki Air ATR 72 Cabin During Inaugural Flight
The reminder of the flight was rather ordinary.

A Warm Welcome in Cold Sapporo

After a relatively uneventful remainder of the eventful flight, the cabin crew made an announcement saying we would be starting preparations for landing soon and that it was -3 degrees Celsius in Sapporo.

Then, at 10:50AM, the seatbelt signs were switched back on.

Descending over snow-covered Hokkaido, the pilots lowered the landing gear at 11:04AM, three minutes before we landed on Okadama Airport’s runway 14.

Toki Air Arrival in Sapporo
Seatbelt sign.
Toki Air Arrival in Sapporo
Descending over snow-covered Hokkaido.

From there, it was just another three minutes until we reached our parking spot at 11:10AM, exactly on time.

While taxiing in, a crowd of people welcomed us from the airport’s small observation deck. Inside the terminal, just outside the baggage claim area, we were warmly welcomed by Okadama Airport and Sapporo Chamber of Commerce representatives who were handing out gift bags with small Okadama Airport-themed hand towels.

Toki Air ATR 72 in Sapporo
Toki Air’s ATR 72 next to Sapporo Okadama’s usual suspect, a Hokkaido Air System ATR 72.
Sapporo Okadama Airport
The observation deck was fairly crowded.
Toki Air Arrival in Sapporo
A warm welcome in Sapporo.

With that, the inaugural flight was over and so I headed to the observation deck to send off the return flight to Niigata before heading over to Sapporo New Chitose Airport to catch my flight back to Tokyo.

The second Toki Air flight, and the first one from Sapporo Okadama, departed at 12:01PM (11 minutes behind schedule) with, as already mentioned, 48 passengers onboard.

Toki Air ATR 72 in Sapporo
Ready to depart bound for Niigata.
Toki Air ATR 72 in Sapporo
Toki Air’s first take-off from Sapporo with revenue passengers onboard.


Toki Air’s inaugural flight went very well – the staff was friendly and professional both on the ground and in the air, the flight arrived on time, and the inaugural ceremony and gift bag were a nice way to make the flight more special than the second flight and beyond.

That said, as the Niigata Prefecture governor said, the inaugural flight was just the start. In the coming months (and hopefully years), Toki Air will need to continue building its route network and, most importantly, brand to increase its load factors and become profitable.

Personally, I think the only viable way for it to do so will be to sign a major partnership with JAL or ANA but we will have to see!

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