Second Kansai runway no cure

Traffic goal elusive as airlines just see added costs, time

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — Kansai International Airport has earned international praise for its clean lavatories and other services, but its goal of being a major Asian hub appears to be sinking and the controversial, costly, hard-fought second runway set to open in less than a year appears unlikely to turn things around.

Kansai airport will open the second 4,000-meter parallel runway next Aug. 2 on a new part of the artificial island south of the current runway and terminal.

The second runway, which is almost completed, marks the end of a long political battle. On one side were Kansai officials and their allies in the transport ministry. On the other were the Finance Ministry, numerous foreign airlines and a wide variety of critics who said it was not needed, especially because of the decline in flight numbers at what is considered one of the world’s most expensive airports to land at.

And now adding to the cost will be the extra fuel that planes will need to burn taxiing to and from the somewhat inconveniently located new runway.

The first runway and terminal building, which opened in 1994, were considered more than sufficient by many. The number of passengers peaked at 20.5 million annually in 2000, and has fallen since. About 16.5 million passengers used the airport in 2005.

Those who did pass through Kansai airport seemed content. Beginning in the late 1990s, independent surveys of major international airports gave Kansai high marks for passenger service. In June, a British research firm ranked the airport No. 4 worldwide and No. 1 in two categories, immigration services and the cleanest public washrooms.

Even if passengers were happy, airlines and the central government are not. When Kansai airport first opened, it was assumed the number of takeoffs and landings would increase to 135,000 annually by 2008, at which point a second runway would be needed.

By 2001, however, the airport was struggling to reach 120,000 annual takeoffs and landings. The Foreign Airlines Association of Japan officially opposed the second runway, as did the Finance Ministry, which killed original plans for a second passenger terminal and a third, crosswind runway. As it is, the artificial island has to keep its pumps running to fend off further subsidence into Osaka Bay. As a result, expanding the complex has always been questionable.

But in 2004, the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry, the Finance Ministry and Kansai officials agreed to open the parallel runway in fiscal 2007 if it could be guaranteed that aircraft movements could reach 130,000 by then.

This figure now seems more doubtful than ever. Last year, takeoffs and landings totaled about 112,000. The goal for 2006 is 119,000, but most view that as unrealistic.

Since the airport’s opening, there have never been more than 124,000 takeoffs and landings in a single year. To reach 130,000, there will have to be another 160 flights per week.

Aggravating the situation, airlines rue the 5- to 6-km taxiing distance from the second runway to the terminal, at a time of exorbitant fuel costs on top of the huge landing fees.

“This means two things. First, at current fuel prices, planes will have to burn tens of thousands of yen in fuel simply getting from the second runway to the passenger gate. Second, it will mean more time to reach the gate,” said an Asian airline official who asked not to be named.

“This won’t be critical to passengers whose final stop is Kansai, but it could mean much tighter connections between domestic or international flights,” the official said.

Domestic airlines are also worried. The route between Kansai and Tokyo’s Haneda airport is the most popular and added delays and costs associated with the second runway could mean that flying will be less able to compete with bullet trains.

Travel from parts of Osaka to Tokyo Station via Kansai and Haneda airports can be up to 20 minutes faster and 6,000 yen cheaper than going from Shin-Osaka Station to Tokyo Station on the bullet train, in an optimistic scenario.

Several airlines have reportedly petitioned the transport ministry to be allowed to use only the first runway to save on taxiing costs, especially those airlines that fly on to China and South Korea. The transport ministry is expected to issue a final report by year’s end.

Faced with growing criticism about the second runway, local officials, including Kansai Economic Federation head Yoshihisa Akiyama, have done little to publicly justify its merits except for falling back on tired slogans and old promises.

“Once the second runway opens, it will give Kansai airport the ability to operate 24 hours a day, making it the only airport in Japan up to global standards,” Akiyama told a late-July press conference. Such comments were made, almost word for word, by officials when the airport first opened in 1994.

So nervous are Kansai officials about reaching the promised 130,000 figure that they are attempting to put a bright face on the fact that the airport is actually becoming a feeder hub to other, larger international airports elsewhere in Asia.

Direct flights from Kansai to non-Asian destinations are far less frequent than from Narita airport, Tokyo’s main gateway, and many people in west Japan now go from Kansai airport to Europe, North America, and elsewhere via Seoul, Hong Kong or Bangkok.

“Even if there are no direct flights to Kansai airport, there are many cases where you can fly from Kansai via an overseas airport and reach your destination quickly,” Akiyama said.