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Saturday, Nov. 27, 2004

Government strong-arms Itami airport

Officials threaten downgrade if local services aren't shifted to Kansai

Staff writer

OSAKA -- The battle over the future of the Kansai region's airports heated up this month as the central government pressured Osaka's Itami airport to shift domestic flights to Kansai International Airport and threatened to take away Itami's official status as an international airport.

While welcomed by Kansai's regional senior governmental and business leaders as a way to raise domestic traffic at the subsidized Kansai airport, which just made its first profit since opening 10 years ago, the news angered many in the region who worry that it is the first step in Itami's eventual closure. Shutting down Itami, critics say, would make air travel to Osaka and Kyoto particularly difficult.

Earlier this month, officials from the finance and transport ministries notified local government and business officials that Itami's status could be downgraded in the hopes that more business would be directed to the offshore Kansai airport.

The message came several months after the central government convinced airlines that fly Boeing 747s to Itami to start switching over to Kansai next April, both to increase domestic passengers at Kansai and to reduce noise complaints from residents around Itami.

But Itami airport has changed.

Ten years ago, when Itami's international flights switched to newly opened Kansai International, most passengers were quite happy. Itami's facilities were old. Good restaurants, shops and other amenities were nonexistent, and long lines were the norm.

At the time, the then Transport Ministry indicated Itami would soon be closed and its remaining domestic flights rerouted to Kansai International. But despite it's age and drabness, Itami's convenient location had won it many fans, and the ministry decided to leave it open as a strictly domestic airport.

Today, thanks to a major renovation in the late '90s partially led by All Nippon Airways, Itami's main customer, Itami airport is bright, clean and equipped with modern facilities, restaurants and coffee shops. Passengers found the new and improved airport a pleasure to use -- as did the airlines -- and Itami now handles 346 flights a day to 37 destinations.

That, however, is a major bone of contention for Kansai airport, which serves more domestic cities (39) than Itami, but only has about 80 takeoffs and landings of domestic flights scheduled daily for November.

"Itami is 30 minutes from (downtown) Osaka," said Rika Mori, an Osaka mother of two who often flies with her family to Tokyo from Itami. "They should add more flights, not shift them to Kansai."

Itami officials said many who live in Kyoto want the airport to remain open. From Kyoto Station, the bus to Itami takes about an hour or less, while Kansai airport requires nearly 1 1/2 hours by train.

"Itami has many fans," said Nobuyoshi Inoue, a spokesman for Itami. "Not only because it's convenient, but also because there is a feeling that it should be a backup airport in case of a major earthquake or typhoon," he said. Kansai airport sits on a man-made island, making it especially vulnerable to earthquakes and typhoons, he said.

Then there is the second-runway issue at Kansai airport. In mid-November, an advisory panel to the finance minister reported that the second runway, scheduled for completion in 2007, was not necessary.

This has led Kansai officials to worry that the second runway will be delayed, leaving the airport with all its eggs in one basket.

Over the last two weeks, Osaka Gov. Fusae Ohta and Kansai business and government officials have been lobbying the Finance Ministry and the transport ministry to provide enough funds in next year's budget to prevent the runway from being delayed indefinitely.

If it were, Itami would be the only airport in Kansai with a runway long enough to handle jumbo jets. That, Inoue said, is another reason to maintain Itami's current official status as an international airport.

Although some wonder if the downgrade would lead to Itami's closure, Inoue said there is nothing to worry about.

"I know some people are afraid Itami will close, but that's not going to happen," he said.

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