Japan's Airport Challenge

Every Japanese house has its genkan or entryway. There is no mistaking where one sheds his outdoor shoes and slips into something more comfortable before entering the house. For three decades Japan has had as its primary aviation genkan a substandard airport located at Narita way out in the countryside.

Visitors from Asia, Europe and America knew that after stumbling bleary-eyed off the aircraft following, say, a 10-hour transPacific flight that they would have to cram their bodies back into another bucket for a two-hour bus or train ride into the city center – the only real choices as a taxi ride would bankrupt an Arab prince.

While the airport authority feuded – ultimately unsuccessfully - with local landowners for permission to build even a second, parallel runway, the traditional genkan to Tokyo itself, Haneda Airport, stuck stubbornly to domestic flights. Meanwhile, other, sleeker Asian portals, especially South Korea's Incheon stole Japan's coveted role as aviation hub for East Asia.

That is changing with this month's opening of a fourth runway at Haneda and the inauguration of a spanking new terminal designed to serve the airport's new crop of international flights. The airport will add 13 international flights, linking such cities as Bangkok, New York, Paris and Honolulu, to the 48 domestic flights it now serves.

The genesis of this division of labor, Narita serving international and Haneda domestic ones, can be traced back to the 1970s, when the government of Japan, anticipating that the main aviation portal, then known as Tokyo International Airport, would become saturated, proposed building a new international airport in the countryside north of Tokyo.

It proved a serious miscalculation. The government did not anticipate the tenacity with which local farmers would cling to their ancestral rice fields. Something like open warfare existed between the government and the farmers, supported by Japanese students, then more radical than their counterparts of today.

Well into the 1990s it was not unusual to see reels of barbed wire spread round the airport and riot police lolling around their buses anticipating violent demonstrations. Tokyo managed to build a second parallel runway in time to handle traffic for the 2002 World Cup, shared by Japan and South Korea. And this month it was extended to make it long enough to handle wide-bodied jets, permitting more "slots" at the overworked airport. At Haneda, which was built on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay, there were no farmers or any other local property owners to stand in the way.

Recently, the US Transportation Department gave its approval for three American carriers to fly directly to Haneda, the first American airlines to use the portal since the 1970s. Delta Air Lines will connect with Los Angeles and Detroit, American Airlines will fly between New York and Tokyo and Hawaiian Airlines will make its first scheduled flights to Japan. Air Asia X, the long-haul arm of Malaysia's Air Asia, the regional's largest budget carrier, will begin flights to Haneda in December.

Annual takeoffs and landings at Haneda are expected to gradually increase to about 407,000 from roughly 303,000 at present, with the opening of the new runway on Oct. 31. Of these, 27,000 have been allocated to domestic flights, 30,000 for international flights and 47,000 to be allocated later. Together with new slots at Narita, the expansion projects should increase landing and takeoff opportunities by more than 200,000.

Haneda will be a particular boon to business travelers as it is located near the downtown, which is only about a 20-minute monorail ride away, compared with distant Narita, which involves either a two-hour bus ride or an hour train ride. (Rather than standing pat in the face of new competition, Narita is opening another, faster rail line to downtown.)

The former Liberal Democratic Party government clung stubbornly to the outdated division of labor between domestic Haneda and international Narita, even as it okayed charter flights from Haneda to nearby markets such as Seoul or Shanghai. That changed under the new government elected last year.

The new Lands, Infrastructure, Transportation and Tourism Minister, Seiji Maehara, strongly supported turning Haneda-Narita into a new Asian hub. Since after his promotion to foreign minister, he was replaced as transport minister by his parliamentary deputy, it can be assumed that Tokyo will press on with this policy and with the rationalization of Japan's airport network.

Internal competition between redundant airports has hampered Japan's efforts to turn one of them into a real hub. A prime example is in western Japan, where the new Kansai International Airport sits cheek-by-jowl with Osaka and Kobe airports. The government would like to close one but such a move meets resistance from local authorities.

Another aviation policy driver is the Open Skies agreement with the US, the first negotiated by Japan. It was approved last December and went into effect this month when Haneda's fourth runway opens. The agreement allows for new routes without having to negotiate government-to-government or strict reciprocity.

Turning the two into a single hub will not be easy, as they are far apart with limited land transportation between them. South Korea's Incheon currently serves 140 international destinations, or more than the two Tokyo-area airports combined. There are other hurdles to cross including Japan's exorbitant landing fees. Those at Incheon are about one-sixth those of Japan's international airports.

Another imponderable is the fate of Japan Airlines, which has been under the supervision of the state-backed Enterprise Turnaround Initiative Corporation of Japan since its filing for creditor protection in January. In the wake of the bankruptcy filing, the ETIC dumped the old management and brought in Kazuo Inamori, formerly the innovative chairman of Kyocera Company, to run the disabled company.

The airline has announced repeated layoffs, cut back on unprofitable domestic and some international routes, sold off non-core businesses such as hotels and sought ways to trim legacy costs associated with generous pensions and is trying to bring down its jet fuel costs by 30 percent over three years, but it is still losing a reported ¥20 billion a month.

Maehara made it clear soon after taking office that he considered JAL too big, or more accurately, too important to fail, although he has occasionally questioned Japan's need for two mega-carriers and hinted that it might like to combine JAL's and All Nippon Airways' international routes. It remains to be seen how it will divide the four new daily slots for Japanese flights to the US from Haneda. ANA is lobbying for all four, arguing that it is unfair to have to compete with an airline under state-backed rehabilitation. But whatever happens, the international passengers will be breathing a sigh of relief.