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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Narita's second runway marks 10 contentious years

Kyodo

CHIBA — Ten years have passed since Narita airport opened its long-delayed second runway, and its operator is hoping the stubby strip, which can accommodate the smaller aircraft favored by budget airlines, will be the key to fending off competition from other airports in Asia.

News photo
Ready for takeoff: Narita airport's contested second runway (top right), which marked its 10th anniversary on Wednesday, is shown in October 2011. KYODO

But Narita International Airport Corp. still has to resolve a long-standing dispute with landowners who delayed the runway's construction — and the airport's expansion plans — for years.

The negotiations are deadlocked, and the two sides are apparently unable to even set a time frame for an agreement.

Since Narita's opening in 1978, when it was known as the New Tokyo International Airport, and the second runway's inauguration in 2002, the airport has relied entirely on a single 4,000-meter strip for all passenger and cargo flights.

The second, 2,180-meter-long runway was opened in April 2002, but only for "provisional" operations.

The "B Runway," as it is known, was initially built shorter than planned to placate landowners living within 400 meters of its southern end. But in 2009 it was extended to its full 2,500 meters, although the expansion proceeded northward rather than to the south.

By the time the strip was finished, Narita had already become a major international flight hub serving a variety of wide-body aircraft, including Boeing 777s and Airbus 380s, which have to use the longer "A Runway" for takeoffs when fully fueled. The B strip is considered better for smaller aircraft.

AirAsia Japan Co. President Kazuyuki Iwakata recently said he was upbeat about the B runway's potential. His low-cost carrier will launch flights from Narita in August.

"It will be the main runway for LCCs (low-cost carriers) and could create a new era for Narita," he said.

The airport operator is also planning to build a dedicated passenger terminal for budget airlines and plans to enhance support by improving taxiways.

The original plan drafted by the government in the 1970s envisioned three runways at Narita. But it was unable to acquire the necessary land due to violent opposition from local residents and farmers, forcing it to open with just a single runway in May 1978.

The second strip's inauguration for provisional flights in spring 2002 was timed to coincide with the World Cup soccer tournament cohosted by Japan and South Korea and to expand Narita's capacity.

The single runway had limited the annual number of aircraft slots at Narita to around 135,000. But the second strip boosted that to 200,000 for the provisional period and to 250,000 slots today.

Homeowners and farmers, meanwhile, are still using the land that the government wants for expanding the B strip and are refusing to sell.

One of the refuseniks, a 65-year-old farmer, said the residents can't even hear each other speak in some parts of the area, where jet planes pass right over their heads at an altitude of around 40 meters.

"If they had cared about the people who are living here, the situation would have turned out differently," the farmer said, referring to the airport's operator.

A local official who expressed his frustration over the deadlocked land negotiations, concurred with the farmer.

The airport "may be moving toward completion in terms of its utility, but it lacks soul," the official complained.

Although there is no breakthrough in sight on the land talks, the airport is nevertheless determined to win.

"As some land has yet to be acquired, we cannot say the airport is complete. We would like to continue dialogue" with stakeholders over their land and properties, an official at the company said.



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