December 17, 2013 1:00 pm JST

Japan strives to put its airports back on the international map

TOKYO -- The selection of Tokyo as the venue for the 2020 Summer Olympic Games has suddenly heightened debate on one of Japan's long-shelved problems -- the weakness of its international airports.

     Tokyo and Osaka rank low in terms of linkage with other major cities overseas because they have yet to make needed improvements to their airports. With globalization marching on, any delay in facilitating international traffic can seriously hamper a nation's growth.

     Hitoshi Ieda, professor of engineering at the University of Tokyo, heads a government panel of experts calling for an increase in landing slots at airports in the Tokyo metropolitan area.

     "It is a global trend to expand the capacity of airports," Ieda said at a press conference in December following a panel meeting. "There remains room for studying the issue for airports in the metropolitan area."

     In fiscal 2014, local governments, airlines and other concerned parties will join panel discussions to seek an agreement on possible solutions.

Fixing a decade of decline

Work at the panel is progressing rapidly, spurred by a sense of crisis in the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. The ministry fears that a lack of competitive airport hubs will affect Japan's strength as a nation now that other Asian economies are rapidly growing.

     Narita Airport, located near Tokyo, is Japan's principal international airport, but its position against overseas counterparts has declined considerably over the past decade. For example, the number of international flight passengers using Narita was about 50% higher than that of Incheon International Airport in 2003. But a total of 38.35 million passengers used the South Korean airport last year, 30% more than Narita.

    Narita opened in 1978 amid fierce, widespread protests. Since then, a complicated tangle of interests has prevented a smooth expansion of its functions, and landing and takeoff hours are limited as a result.

     Narita International Airport Corp., operator of the airport, is also partly to blame for the weakened position as it has set high fees for the use of facilities and landing. International connections and shops in terminal buildings at Narita have also been unattractive to visitors.

     Flights from Narita and Tokyo's Haneda Airport connect to one-fourth the number of overseas cities that Heathrow and four other airports in London do. Dubai International Airport in the United Arab Emirates alone has twice as many overseas destinations.

     In the Kansai region, with Osaka at its center, Kansai International Airport is seeking to pull itself out of deep debt by integrating its management with nearby Osaka International Airport. The overlapping presence of these two airports indicates the lack of grand design in Japan's airport policy.

     The situation is finally starting to change thanks to such developments as the use of Haneda for international flights. An increase in landing slots at Narita, moreover, has led to the launch of Japanese low-cost carriers.

     Overseas aviation companies are paying keen attention to this new market. A Japan-based budget carrier set up by China's Spring Airlines will begin operating from Narita in May. "We will be able to climb into the black on a single-year basis within two years," Wang Wei, chairman of the new company, said.

    To lure more airlines, Narita needs to follow Kansai International Airport's example and cut landing fees.

Haneda at heart

But what many in the aviation industry want is more space, particularly at Haneda.

     "Airports in the metropolitan area should further expand their capacities," Shinichiro Ito, president of ANA Holdings, said, reflecting the industry's expectation for further debate on the issue.

    The transport ministry panel has already drawn up an extensive list of measures to make Haneda a 24-hour airport, a move that has so far been rejected due to such concerns as possible noise problems and disruptions to regional air routes.

     The measures the panel will study include flights from Haneda directly north over Tokyo, conversion of domestic flights into international services and construction of a new runway, all in hopes of making Haneda a regional hub once more.

     As the debate on expanding airport capacity continues, ANA has also decided to invest in Asian Wings Airways of Myanmar. Operations based on airports in Japan, which are subject to numerous restrictions, are not enough to lure tourists from the rapidly growing Asian region. ANA also hopes to attract tourists between Asian cities

     But ANA's latest operation plan, announced Dec. 9, still emphasizes Haneda as a cornerstone of its operations. Starting next spring, ANA will double the number of Haneda-Bangkok and Haneda-Singapore flights while halving the number of flights between Narita and the two cities. Japan Airlines is expected to follow suit.

     There also are plans to build rapid-transit railways that will connect the heart of Tokyo to Haneda in only 18 minutes and to Narita in only 36 minutes.

(Nikkei)

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