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Saturday, March 14, 2009

New Narita-Tokyo copter service targets rich, famous


Staff writer

For foreigners visiting Japan or Japanese returning from holidays abroad, it takes an hour or more to get from Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture to central Tokyo.

News photo
Narita super-express: Actor Tom Cruise stands in front of a helicopter on the roof of the Ark Mori Building in the Akasaka district in Minato Ward, Tokyo, on March 8. Cruise was the first passenger of Mori Building Co.'s copter transport service, which connects Narita airport and central Tokyo in just 20 minutes. ©2008 MGM STUDIOS INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

But not any more if you are willing to shell out the equivalent of a diamond ring or a bottle of vintage wine for a helicopter ride.

Mori Building Co., a developer of luxury urban properties in central Tokyo, will in April begin a 20-minute copter transport service flying passengers from Narita to central Tokyo for about ¥500,000.

Before the official launch of the service, movie star Tom Cruise last Sunday tried out the flight with his wife, actress Katie Holmes, and their 2-year-old daughter, Suri.

"The helicopter ride was really fun," Cruise, visiting Japan to promote his latest movie, "Valkyrie," was quoted as saying by an employee of a movie distributor.

Mori Building is hoping to lure wealthy customers who visit Japan in business jets, including movie stars, top athletes and business executives. As well as making a profit, the firm also hopes to increase Tokyo's competitiveness as an international capital by ensuring easy access from the airport to the city's center.

A number of foreign companies have shifted their Asian headquarters from Tokyo to Hong Kong or Singapore, partly because it takes too long to travel from Narita to central Tokyo, said Yoshimitsu Isoi, executive vice president of Mori Building City Air Services Co., the operator of the helicopter service.

"Our helicopter service is necessary infrastructure for a global city," Isoi said in an interview with The Japan Times. "Target customers would be those who want to buy time."

About 700 business jets arrive at Narita every year, Isoi said, noting the copter ride will fly from the airport to a helipad atop the Ark Mori Building in the Akasaka district of Minato Ward.

The fare has not yet been set, but Isoi said the price for a one-way ride on the copter, which can transport up to four passengers, will be less than ¥500,000. The price will remain the same even if there are fewer than four passengers, he said.

TV Asahi, a tenant of the Ark Mori Building from 1989 to 2003, used the helipad to transport reporters and camera crew. However, it has been idle since the TV company moved out and Mori Building has been trying to come up with ways to use it.

Although critics doubt the copter service will turn a profit amid the recession, Isoi is confident demand for the service exists.

"Not doing this is risky," he said. "We have many global companies as tenants of our buildings. We have to show the world that Tokyo is an attractive city."

To add a luxurious touch, the company is paying about ¥1 billion for a special edition Eurocopter EC135 designed by high-end French fashion brand Hermes. The copter will be delivered to the company this summer, Isoi said.

The business needs four groups of customers a day to make ends meet, he said, adding it probably will not pay for itself in the first three to five years.

Rivals say the target is too ambitious. An official of Aero Asahi Corp., the country's largest helicopter operator, said it flies at most one round trip a month from Narita to Tokyo.

"What kind of sales promotion would make it possible" to carry four groups of passengers a day, the official said.

Comparing the two companies' services, Mori Building charges a slightly higher rate, but its Ark Mori Building heliport is in the heart of Tokyo, giving it an advantage over the helipad Aero Asahi uses.

Aero Asahi, which operates a nationwide helicopter business, connects Narita airport with Tokyo Heliport in the Kiba district of Koto Ward. This is the only Tokyo helipad that runs a commercial operation at present. The heliport is about a 15-minute walk from Shinkiba Station.

As for accommodations, the 37-story Ark Mori Building hosts an ANA InterContinental Tokyo hotel, while a few more hotels are within walking distance.

In terms of price, a 20-minute copter ride with a four-person capacity from Narita airport to Kiba by Aero Asahi costs ¥320,000, plus an additional ¥50,000 to ¥100,000 for Narita's landing fee and other costs.

Although a one-way copter ride from Narita to Kiba takes 20 minutes, customers have to charter a copter for 40 minutes to allow for the time it takes the chopper to return to its starting point.

Customers thus pay ¥240,000 for chartering a chopper for 30 minutes, plus an additional ¥80,000 for an extra 10 minutes at ¥8,000 per minute.

Meanwhile, Mori's copter unit has not decided if it will charge a landing fee and other costs on top of the fixed fare, Isoi said.

"We are not doing this to make money. Rather, we are doing this to make Tokyo easier to access so that many people come to the city. If Tokyo becomes lively, that will add value to our properties, such as hotels and residential buildings," he said.



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