Ibaraki airport not winning over airlines

by Toshiyuki Inaba

Kyodo News

MITO, Ibaraki Pref. — With just a year left until Ibaraki airport opens, South Korea’s Asiana Airlines is the only carrier so far that has decided to fly into the airport.

The Ibaraki Prefectural Government is advertising the airport, scheduled to open next March, as the third in the Tokyo metropolitan area after Haneda and Narita.

But the little-known civil airport, which will share runways with the Air Self-Defense Force’s Hyakuri Air Base, has failed to attract airlines.

A new 2,700-meter runway will be built at a cost of about ¥55.3 billion parallel to an existing runway of equal length.

“Ibaraki airport has some advantages over Haneda and Narita that could attract customers,” Asiana Managing Director Hyun Dong Silk said at a news conference in February, when he announced his carrier would fly one flight daily from Incheon to Ibaraki.

The city of Omitama, site of the airport, which is about a 90-minute drive from central Tokyo, insists the facility is small enough to allow passengers to move quickly from check-in counters to boarding areas.

Despite such apparent convenience, airlines and travel businesses are reluctant to commit to Ibaraki airport.

An analyst at a major travel agency in Tokyo said: “There are many people who don’t even know where the airport is. Without gaining publicity in the metropolitan area, it cannot be ‘the third airport’ there.”

Even Asiana’s Hyun seemed worried about the lack of publicity, saying: “The name Ibaraki indicates just a local airport. To emphasize that it is located in the metropolitan area, I want the airport to have Tokyo in its name for international customers.”

The prefecture estimates the number of passengers on domestic flights in the initial year at about 800,000, while daily flights between Incheon and Ibaraki would bring less than 80,000 a year. It remains vital for the government to attract more airlines to the airport.

Malaysia’s AirAsia X was initially thought to be the first airline that may come to Ibaraki. But according to prefectural officials, the carrier has become cautious given the global financial crisis.

The prefecture is also trying to promote the airport to domestic airlines, but the situation surrounding the domestic airlines is deteriorating.

Last year, major domestic airlines decided to stop or reduce services to regional airports, posing the likelihood that Ibaraki airport will open without any domestic flights.