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Thursday, Oct. 7, 2004

Chubu airport to add to Kansai's unease

Sinking feeling to worsen as new hub steals flights, expedites connections


Staff writer

TOKONAME, Aichi Pref. -- With the February opening of Chubu Centrair International Airport, its general manager of sales and marketing has a few words for those who worry the new facility will take flights away from Kansai International Airport.

News photo
The Chubu Centrair International Airport's passenger terminal building off Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture, will open in February.

Yoshiaki Bito's message: Be afraid.

"While Chubu airport will offer fewer international flights than Kansai airport, we aim to do a big business in cargo flights. As it will be cheaper to use Chubu airport than Kansai airport, Kansai officials are right to be afraid that some cargo flights might move from Kansai airport to Chubu airport," Bito said.

About 20 cargo flights a week are expected to land at Chubu when it opens. Kansai, which sits in Osaka Bay, currently has about 110 cargo flights a week, and Narita International Airport near Tokyo, the nation's main gateway to the world, has about 270.

But as the cost for a fully loaded Boeing 747 to land at Chubu airport will be 695,000 yen, as opposed to 825,500 yen for Kansai airport, Chubu officials claim -- and some Kansai officials admit -- the initial 20 flights per week at Chubu will quickly increase.

Chubu airport is, like Kansai airport, located on a man-made island in the bay, but that's about where the similarities end.

Unlike Kansai airport, which has come to symbolize grandiose construction projects that bleed red ink and now faces severe problems ranging from low demand to sinkage of the airport island, Chubu airport has gone out of it's way to do things cheaply and efficiently.

"Chubu was built at nearly 100 billion yen under budget," said Tetsuya Takahashi, another Chubu airport official. "There were also a number of engineering advantages that we had, starting with the fact that the seabed off Nagoya is more solid, and the water is more shallow than Osaka Bay.

"This meant we needed less money for landfill," he added. "The whole project was done with an attitude of saving money wherever possible."

The airport will open with one 3,500-meter runway.

While airlines are still finalizing their route plans, Chubu is expected to serve about 1,000 flights a week, slightly more than Kansai's roughly 980. Narita, by contrast, has about 1,700.

Of the weekly international flights, Chubu officials estimate there will be about 200 to the rest of Asia, about 30 to the United States and Canada, 30 to Guam and Saipan, 14 to Europe, and the remainder to Oceania and elsewhere.

Kansai will still offer more than twice the number of international flights than Chubu, roughly 679 weekly to Chubu's planned 300.

But what has Kansai officials worried and what gives Chubu officials confidence are the all-important domestic connections to international flights.

Currently, Kansai airport has only about 300 domestic flights per week. Chubu, on the other hand, will offer 700 domestic flights per week.

"One of the big disadvantages of Kansai airport for many people from places like Kyushu, Shikoku or the Tohoku region is that they have to fly into Osaka's Itami airport and then take a 90-minute bus ride to Kansai airport. Or, in some cases, they have to come to Osaka the night before their (international) flight out of Kansai airport, because there are so few domestic connections," Bito said.

"With Chubu's large number of domestic flights, especially to Kyushu and Tohoku, passengers will be able to fly in and make their connection in the same airport. Our aim is to keep transit time to within one hour," he said.

Chubu airport could also end up attracting passengers in the Kansai region. From JR Kyoto Station, Chubu airport is about 90 minutes away if one takes the fastest bullet train to Nagoya Station and switches to the airport limited express. Kansai airport is about 80 minutes away by direct train.

"The reality is that those who live in Kyoto and Shiga prefectures will have their choice of two international airports if they wish to spend the extra money (about 5,000 yen) it would cost to go by bullet train to Nagoya Station. If airfares from Chubu are cheaper than Kansai and the flights are more convenient, that is going to hurt Kansai," predicted one Kansai airport official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

For foreign airlines and many in the Nagoya foreign business community, the opening of Chubu airport is viewed with a mixture of pride, hope and caution.

Many complaints of the Chubu foreign business community about the building of Chubu airport echo complaints heard from Kansai's international business community when Kansai airport was being built.

"Like the building of Kansai airport, the building of Chubu airport was all done in a closed way. A lot of foreign expertise and good advice was ignored in favor of keeping decisions within a closed circle of local businessmen," complained one American businessmen who has lived in Nagoya for more than a decade.

But at least in terms of the terminal building design, Chubu officials did do something differently than Kansai.

The Chubu terminal is a huge glass and steel structure with a modern look. But unlike the critically acclaimed sleek and colorful Renzo Piano-designed Kansai airport terminal, Chubu's emphasizes simple function over form and lacks the sweeping design of Kansai's.

Both Chubu officials and foreign residents of Nagoya say the more functional design of Chubu reflects the fact that Chubu's leaders, famous nationwide for being frugal, would balk at paying a world-famous architect to design the building, as well as the general preference of people there for the practical and down-to-earth, rather than the flashy and extravagant.



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