U.S. to return rights to Okinawa

The United States agreed Friday to return to Japan air traffic control rights over Okinawa Island and its vicinity in about three years, the U.S. Forces in Japan said.

Under the agreement, reached at a meeting of the bilateral Joint Committee in Tokyo, Japan will regain the air traffic control rights for the first time since World War II. Okinawa was occupied by the United States after the war and returned to Japan in 1972.

Upon Okinawa’s reversion, it was agreed that the U.S. military would “provisionally” handle air traffic control until the Japanese side completed its preparations.

The U.S. Air Force will start to train Japanese civilian air traffic controllers Wednesday at its Kadena Air Base on Okinawa Island for a smooth handover, the USFJ said.

“It is estimated that it will take approximately three years to complete, after which consultations will take place” to coordinate the transfer of an air control system called Kadena Radar Approach Control, or Kadena Rapcon, it said.

Approach control services will then be transferred to Naha airport after the training is completed, the U.S. forces said.

Air traffic over Okinawa currently is controlled from the Kadena base under the Kadena Rapcon system. It covers airspace up to an altitude of 6.1 km and within an 80.5-km radius of the base, as well as airspace over Kume Island, 80 km west of Okinawa Island.

Kadena Rapcon currently controls all civilian and military aircraft in those areas.

Many pilots at Japanese airlines worry over safety when they fly near Okinawa Island because the main approach to Naha airport for civilian flights intersects one to the Kadena base used by U.S. military aircraft in emergencies.

U.S. control over the airspace forces Japanese commercial airplanes taking off or landing at Naha to operate within a narrower air corridor than at other airports in Japan, the Japanese pilots said.