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Thursday, Feb. 16, 2006

Critics cry white elephant while backers hunker down and hope

Staff writer

KOBE -- It was the airport nobody except the Kobe Municipal Government and a few local business leaders originally wanted.

News photo
A Kobe portliner train crosses a bridge on the way to Kobe airport.

Criticized as a prime example of useless public works spending, nearly 350,000 Kobe residents signed a petition in 1998 calling for a plebiscite on the airport's necessity, but City Hall rejected it.

On Thursday, nearly 40 years after the idea was first pitched, the 310 billion yen airport opens in an atmosphere of what even supporters admit is one of desperate hope.

Its critics fear the airport is doomed to fail and will drive the already financially troubled city into bankruptcy.

Kobe has long claimed that the airport -- the third major one in the Kansai region -- is vital to the city's infrastructure, and there are high hopes it will bring in tourists and conventions as well as attract new businesses.

"The airport will make Kobe more competitive in the convention business. With a large international conference hall on Port Island, only minutes away from the airport, we hope Kobe will become one of the most convenient cities in the nation for holding conventions," said Masao Saito, a local businessman involved in the convention planning business.

When the airport's supporters speak of the future, the word hope is heard quite a lot. As Saito admits, it's a desperate hope against a storm of criticism from all quarters over the airport's necessity.

One of the first issues critics take up is the airport's touted convenience to Tokyo compared with bullet trains. They point out that the difference is less than it may first appear.

Traveling from Sannomiya Station to Tokyo Station by the fastest trains and best connections takes roughly three hours and 15 minutes. From Sannomiya to Tokyo via Kobe and Haneda airports takes at least two hours and 30 minutes, allowing for minimum check-in, boarding and deplaning, and bus or train transit times.

Then there is the market for Kobe airport outside Kobe. The city and the airlines all agree that the roughly 1.5 million people living in Kobe are the primary market. But the suburbs, especially to the densely populated east, are another matter.

Itami airport is 45 minutes by bus from Sannomiya Station, but people living to the east of Kobe in Nishinomiya and Ashiya, Hyogo Prefecture, now have their choice of flying out of either Itami or Kobe, both of which are, with the best train connections, between 45 and 50 minutes away from the major stations in the area.

Media surveys have shown that the farther east from Sannomiya people live, the less likely they will be to use Kobe airport and the more likely they will go to Itami.

"People in Kansai won't mind spending an extra couple thousand yen to fly into Itami if it has more flights, and at times people want to fly," Ray Kruger, the head of Academy Travel in Osaka. "Kobe airport will obviously attract people in the Kobe and Himeji areas, but if Itami is more convenient, I can't see how Kobe airport could compete for customers who are in between both airports."

Meanwhile, Kansai International Airport officials say Kobe airport is not likely to mean a reduced number of domestic flights, at least at first.

"For the moment, I don't see Kobe airport negatively influencing domestic routes at Kansai airport," said Atsushi Murayama, the president of Kansai airport.

And it is not as if Kansai or Itami airports are operating at full capacity. Over the past decade, as Kobe airport moved toward reality, a chorus of critics ranging from Finance Ministry bureaucrats to foreign airlines questioned the need for a new airport at a time when both existing airports were underused and when a second runway was being built for Kansai International, which sits across the bay, almost in sight of Kobe airport.

Under pressure from the central government, Kansai officials, particularly in Osaka, began searching for ways to justify the need for three airports, but the result has been little more than public assurances that the three will compliment, not compete with, each other.

The presence of three airports within a roughly 40-km radius has raised concerns about crowded skies. While officials at all three airports say air traffic controllers can handle the increased number of planes and time the takeoffs and landings safely, some pilots worry the addition of Kobe airport may present problems if the unexpected occurs.

"Kobe airport sits in the bay with Mount Rokko to the north, and the available airspace around the airport is narrow. The winds coming off Mount Rokko mean pilots may have to land in strong crosswinds," airline pilot Tetsuji Mori said in a speech in Kobe last Saturday to antiairport activists.

"If these winds or bad weather conditions force pilots to abort a landing and circle around to try again, it's possible they could come dangerously close to other aircraft on final approach to Itami or Kansai airports."

But it's the financial viability of Kobe airport that has its most strident critics angry, and its staunchest supporters on the defensive.

Longtime Kobe assemblyman Tomio Awahara, who has opposed the airport from the beginning, said supporters in City Hall have never justified the cost and have used economic data to support their claims based on questionable methods.

"For example, one calculation that the city did for airport revenue assumed Kobe airport would collect landing fees from Boeing 747s. But the airlines said they do not plan on landing such airplanes, which means the revenue projections are useless," he said.

A survey conducted by the Kobe Shimbun earlier this month showed almost half the respondents were concerned that city taxes will have to be used to prop up the airport. Awahara, along with virtually all of the critics, say this is all but certain.

"Kobe airport is going to bleed red ink, and it will be the city taxpayers who have to pay, which is going to mean cuts elsewhere. I don't ever see the airport making a profit," Awahara said.

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