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Tuesday, May 25, 2004

NATIONAL GOVERNMENT ON FENCE

Wrangling over new Kobe airport rumbles on


Staff writer

OSAKA -- Tension over the future of airports in the Kansai region boiled over recently, with politicians and business leaders in Kobe and Osaka engaging in public skirmishes with the central government and with each other.

Debate covers a range of issues, from the role of three airports in the region to funding for Kansai International Airport's second runway, which is slated to open in 2007.

Besides Kansai airport, the region hosts Itami airport, which now handles only domestic flights, and Kobe airport, slated to open in 2006.

On Wednesday, Kansai airport chief Atsushi Murayama, Osaka Gov. Fusae Ohta and other members of the Kansai business community met in Tokyo with Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Taro Nakayama and other Osaka-area politicians.

They asked the lawmakers to pressure the central government into ensuring that Kansai airport's second runway will be constructed as planned.

Yet this lobbying campaign has been waged without addressing two of the most contentious issues.

One is whether Kobe airport, which will be the region's third, is even necessary.

Locals have long questioned its potential impact on the environment and its wasteful use of public money, with their objections echoed by some in both the local and central governments.

Yet governmental objections have been relatively muted, since it was assumed Kobe airport would be only for domestic flights.

Last week, however, Osaka officials were surprised when Global Wings Inc., a Tokyo-based firm that operates small business jets, announced it would operate charter flights between Kobe and Shanghai.

"The central government has already decided that Kansai airport is to handle international flights," Ohta told a news conference at the prefectural government building May 18. "I find it strange that Kobe is going beyond this agreement and inviting international charter flights."

Also at issue is an ongoing shift of domestic flights from Kansai airport to Itami.

This shift has won favor among airlines -- due to Itami's convenient location in relation to all major cities in the region -- but has been strongly opposed by Kansai airport officials.

"The shift of flights to Osaka (Itami) has hurt our competitiveness," Kansai airport's Murayama told reporters following the May 19 meeting with LDP lawmakers.

With no conclusion to the airport debate among local officials in sight, the central government appears to be sitting on the fence.

On May 11, transport minister Nobuteru Ishihara said it was the responsibility of local governments to think seriously about the role of Kansai, Itami and Kobe airports -- a remark that angered Osaka officials.

"Saying local governments should decide shows the transport ministry is avoiding the issue. The ministry has the authority to decide and should use that authority," Ohta said.

Ishihara's comments echoed similar statements by other transport ministry officials.

The remarks are interpreted by Kansai airport officials as a warning that their funding request for second-phase construction, which was cut by nearly 30 percent in fiscal 2004 from the initial plan, could see further cuts in fiscal 2005.

Kansai airport, which opened in 1994, has total debts of nearly 1.3 trillion yen. It has seen its number of passengers decline from a high of nearly 20 million in 2000 to just under 14 million in 2003.

The second-phase construction, originally predicated on a forecast of around 24 million passengers a year by 2007, is expected to cost about 1.1 trillion yen.

All of these squabbles come at a time when political circles in Kansai are more concerned about the July House of Councilors election.

To make matters worse, heavyweight support in Nagata-cho for their pet projects has been waning.

"In the past, we could rely on (former LDP Secretary General) Hiromu Nonaka, from Kyoto, and (former Finance Minister) Masajuro Shiokawa, from Higashi-Osaka, to keep central government money for Kansai airport coming," a local LDP chapter official said after the May 19 meeting between Kansai officials and the LDP's Nakayama.

Both Nonaka and Shiokawa retired last year.

"There aren't any Kansai-region politicians with that kind of influence now," the official said. "That makes it all the more important that the Upper House election sends politicians to Tokyo with the power to pry funding out of the anti-Kansai airport bureaucrats."



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