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Friday, Feb. 27, 2004

Kansai in dire need of airport guidance


Staff writer

OSAKA -- With Kobe airport due to open next year, joining Kansai International Airport and the domestic hub in Itami, Kansai's business and government leaders have formed a committee to figure out how to effectively operate the region's three airports.

But critics fear the committee will fail to address the concerns of foreign airlines using Kansai airport, and that its formation will do little to prevent both international and domestic airline business from shifting to other airports outside the Kansai region.

The committee was officially formed in December. It came into being after several years of tensions between Kansai officials, the central government and foreign airlines over the need for both Kobe airport and the second phase of construction at Kansai airport.

The committee includes Yoshihisa Akiyama, head of the Kansai Economic Federation, the governors of Osaka and Hyogo prefectures, as well as the mayors of Osaka and Kobe.

In a meeting with the transport ministry in November, a group of business leaders, including Akiyama, admitted that the contentious Kobe airport was not originally necessary, but that it was built as part of the city's restoration plan after the 1995 earthquake, which resulted in the loss of over 6,000 lives.

Kobe airport, with one 2,500-meter runway, will be for domestic flights only and is slated to open in spring 2005.

So far, only Skymark Airlines Co. has said it will use the airport, with four flights daily between Kobe and Tokyo's Haneda airport.

"The committee is studying ways of integrating services of all three airports, but it's important that second-phase construction at Kansai airport be given top priority," Akiyama said.

"Kansai airport will serve as the international airport, Itami will serve domestic flights from Osaka and the surrounding areas, while Kobe will serve the Kobe region and the area to the west."

But it is Kansai airport that has the committee especially worried.

International flights, especially to the United States and to Europe, continue to be canceled or suspended because of the high costs of using the airport, while domestic flights are shifting back to Itami.

Kansai airport, opened in 1994, is built on a man-made island far from downtown Osaka, while Itami airport is more conveniently located on the border between Osaka and Hyogo prefectures.

In 1996, Kansai airport offered 36 domestic routes, but that number had fallen to just 15 as of the end of last year.

"The way Itami is operated needs to be rethought," Atsushi Murayama, president of Kansai International Airport Co., said at a seminar of Kansai business leaders in early February.

Murayama is concerned that the decreasing domestic flights from Kansai airport is making it more difficult for international travelers to make connections to other cities in Japan.

The transport ministry, however, has repeatedly said it has no plans to close Itami.

While many Kansai leaders and government officials are involved in discussions about how to maximize the efficiency of the three airports, foreign airlines are left out of the loop.

Neither the Foreign Airlines Association of Japan, which includes representatives of 40 major airlines that fly to Japan, nor the International Air Transport Association, an international industry organization, has been asked by the committee to provide advice or recommendations.

"We did not ask for Kobe airport to be built, and we have made our concerns about that airport and the necessity of second-phase construction at Kansai airport known to the Japanese government," said Anthony Concil, IATA spokesman for the Asia-Pacific region.

"Kansai airport remains one of the most expensive airports in the world to operate from," he said. "Not just landing fees, but other costs make it unattractive to airlines. They are afraid costs of second construction will make it even more expensive."

Making matters worse is that when Kobe airport opens, Kansai will have three airports in a country where the market is considered mature and little further growth is expected.

That could mean a further loss of international flights from the Kansai region, as foreign airlines look to growing markets elsewhere.

And then there is Chubu airport off Nagoya, also opening next year.

"If Chubu airport is cheaper to operate from, a lot of international and domestic cargo flights in particular might decide to use it, which could affect Kansai's airports," Concil said.

While the foreign airlines, the IATA and Kansai officials are at odds over the three airports, they all agree on one thing -- the need for a realistic airport policy for Japan.

"A clear concept for all airport construction in Japan is needed, and the role of each airport has to be made clear," Akiyama said.



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