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Expanded Haneda slots creates problem for Narita, airlines

TOKYO -- The Japanese government plans to bolster international flight capacity at Haneda Airport as it prepares for the 2020 Summer Olympics. But this increase is causing a dilemma for the government as well as Japanese and foreign airline companies, and in particular, Tokyo's other airport.

     For a long time, Haneda, which is closer to the city center than Narita Airport, was chiefly used for domestic flights. But with expanded international landing slots at Haneda in recent years, airlines have been trying to scale down their Narita flights, even though the government has asked the airlines not to.

     In early September, a letter from the U.K. aviation authority came as a shock to the Japanese transport ministry. It said that it may no longer allow flights on All Nippon Airways' new route between Haneda and London, which was launched in March.

     The U.K. authority has singled out this particular route because the transport ministry has called for Virgin Atlantic Airways to continue its Narita-based flights. The British carrier has announced it would end its Narita-London route at the end of next January.

     In March, Haneda increased its landing slots for international flights to 90,000 a year from 60,000. The expansion allows airlines to more conveniently operate Europe-bound flights during the daytime. ANA has obtained more than twice the amount of such slots as its rival Japan Airlines and has bolstered its profitable routes from Haneda to destinations such as London and Paris.

     However, Haneda's proximity to central Tokyo and greater flight convenience is a challenge for Narita, which is used primarily for international flights but is farther away from the city center. This has prompted passengers to opt for Haneda-based flights when given the chance.

     The transport ministry has urged airlines to keep the same routes departing from Narita if they have introduced new daytime flights from Haneda to European and Asian countries since this spring. This requirement is not legally binding. But the ministry has the authority to give permission for flight operations and has strongly called on airlines to keep their services at Narita.

     "We see it more like a partly required unwritten rule," said an industry official.

Spoiled by choice

This all started when ANA decided to start Haneda-London flights. Even though the company simultaneously stopped its Narita-London route, its code-share partner Virgin Atlantic kept its Narita-London service. Technically, this meant ANA was in line with the transport ministry's requirement. But with Virgin Atlantic ending its Narita services, this has changed.

     The U.K. aviation authority has questioned the validity of the transport ministry's policy. "Using ANA's profit-making route as a justification, they are asking us to scrap the requirement," said a transport ministry official.

     Meanwhile, airlines have not officially complained about the requirement, but are in other ways letting their frustration take voice. Continued Narita flights with expanded Haneda slots means they are offering more passenger seats in total, which means the less popular Narita services will likely cut into profits.

     Until the end of February, for example, five flights a day ran between Tokyo and Paris, taking both Haneda and Narita into account. In March, this was increased to seven. This gives passengers greater choice, but as an aviation expert put it, if this keeps up, major airlines will suffer losses of tens of millions of dollars a year and seat occupancy rates will drop to around 50%.

     Industry observers say that Virgin Atlantic has decided to withdraw from Narita partly due to deteriorating profitability. Other companies are also looking to cut back on or cease their Narita flights, according to a person familiar with the matter.

     British Airways still keeps one slot open for a daily flight from Haneda Airport. If the company exercises the right to use this slot, it will be required to keep its Narita-London service. That will put another constraint on its management.


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