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Friday, Feb. 18, 2005

Chubu airport opens to cheers


Staff writer

TOKONAME, Aichi Pref. -- Central Japan International Airport began service Thursday as the nation's third major international gateway after Narita and Kansai, with visitors and passengers giving the new facility a nearly unqualified thumbs up.

News photo
A Fukuoka-bound All Nippon Airways jet becomes the first flight to depart from Central Japan International Airport, located on a man-made island in Ise Bay, early Thursday morning.

Thousands of visitors began arriving early Thursday morning at Chubu airport -- built on a man-made island in Ise Bay -- to celebrate the arrival of the first flights and soak up the atmosphere.

About 300 people on the observation deck welcomed the first plane, a Japan Airline chartered flight from Saipan, which landed on the 3,500-meter runway at around 6:45 a.m. to applause.

Later in the morning, a Thai Airways plane arriving from Thailand became the first foreign carrier to land at the airport.

Long lines of customers snaked out of stores in the fourth-floor shopping center, where gift shops, restaurants and coffee shops have traditional- and Western-style facades.

"I'm here just to do some shopping and have some lunch," said Michiko Sato, a 58-year-old housewife from Toyota city who was visiting the airport with two friends. "There are a lot of restaurants -- especially Western-style restaurants -- here that you can't find in central Nagoya."

Passengers were also pleased with the new facility.

"After all of the problems and complaints Japan has had over the years with Narita and Kansai airports, it looks like the third time was the charm," said David Morgan, an American engineer and frequent visitor to Japan who was in transit from Kagoshima to Detroit.

"Chubu is small enough to easily walk around without getting tired, and international to domestic connections are a breeze."

His one complaint was that there was nowhere to buy English-language books for the flight. The airport's only bookstore, Maruzen -- which usually carries English books -- had only a few copies of English-language news magazines, and they were tucked away beside Japanese-language guides to Nagoya, making them hard to find.

From its conception, Chubu airport officials emphasized that the airport's design, layout and management would stress function over form. They also said that things would be done cost-efficiently and with attention to the needs of business travelers, who consider fast, easy connections and quickly getting through immigration and customs more important than ornate terminal buildings.

The former Toyota Motor Corp. executives in charge, including Yukihisa Hirano, president of Central Japan International Airport Co., were determined to cut costs where possible.

The result was that Chubu airport was finished 15 percent -- 120 billion yen -- under budget, and landing fees for a Boeing 747 were reduced to 655,000 yen.

While this remains more expensive than rival Asian hubs, including Inchon, South Korea, it is cheaper than Japan's two other main international gateways, Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture and Kansai International Airport in Osaka Bay.

"I give the first day's operations a passing grade of 80 percent," Hirano told an afternoon news conference.

"There previously had been some concerns about the baggage-handling system running smoothly. But overall, there were no major problems with getting people on and off the planes."

During its first year of operation, the new airport will handle about 320 international and 700 domestic flights a week.

About 7 million domestic passengers and 5 million international passengers are expected to use the airport annually.

Chubu officials have promised that transit times between domestic and international flights will average around 75 minutes. But the time between many flights will be under an hour due to the large number of domestic flights, meaning Chubu will be a more convenient transit point than Narita or Kansai airports, which have far fewer domestic connections.

Many of the international flights to 24 cities are to Asia, particularly China and South Korea.

In response to grumbling that the new airport needs more flights to Europe and North America, Japan Air Lines has announced a new route to Paris, and United Airlines and American Airlines will offer flights to San Francisco and Chicago by April.



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