Airport wars roil Kansai region

Osaka, Hyogo leaders clash over hub plans

by Eric Johnston

OSAKA — Two years into his term, Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto continues to enjoy high popularity among voters, with some local media polls showing his approval rating at almost 70 percent, due largely to his personality and cost-cutting steps.

But outside Osaka, Hashimoto’s brashness and controversial call to close profit-making Itami airport, which sits on the border of Itami, Hyogo Prefecture, and Ikeda and Toyonaka in Osaka Prefecture, and to make heavily indebted Kansai International Airport the region’s main hub are earning him an increasing number of critics, led by Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido. The state-run Itami’s central location makes it the Kansai region’s most popular airport.

Hashimoto insists the only way to revive Kansai International, which sits just off the bay in southern Osaka Prefecture, and requires more time to access from central Osaka and Kobe, is for Itami to be closed and for its flights to be shifted to Kansai. It isn’t helping the planning that the future of Japan Airlines’ service to not only Kansai and Itami airports, but also Kobe airport, is in doubt.

Opened in 2003 on an artificial island amid widespread controversy over whether it was needed or its costs could be justified as the city rebuilt from the Great Hanshin Earthquake, the one-runway Kobe airport handles only domestic, limited flight services.

Last week, Hashimoto said he would step up his push to close Itami, although only the state has that authority.

“To turn Kansai International Airport into a superhub for the Asian region, there is no other choice but to close Itami,” Hashimoto said last week. “At the local level, with the exception of Hyogo Prefecture, I’m confident I can get officials to agree to close Itami.”

Ido, after hearing Hashimoto’s comments, immediately fired back. “The argument to close Itami is complete nonsense,” he said. “Why does the closing of Itami lead to keeping Kansai airport afloat?”

The Hyogo governor continued: “All (Hashimoto) says is ‘abolish, abolish,’ without explanation. Why does he think that, other than Hyogo, he can get leaders to agree to its closing?”

Currently, Itami airport serves 31 cities nationwide, while Kansai International serves seven. From Sannomiya Station in Kobe, Itami is only about 40 minutes by bus. Kansai International is 65 minutes by bus and nearly 90 minutes by train.

From central Osaka, Itami is only 25 to 30 minutes by bus from Umeda Station, while Kansai is about 50 minutes by bus and more than an hour by train.

Ido’s criticism hasn’t stopped Hashimoto, who unveiled a plan in November for closing Itami and making use of the land afterward.

“By 2035, the new linear bullet train connecting Tokyo and Osaka in about an hour will hopefully be running, eliminating the need for Itami by then, especially the Itami to Haneda flights,” Hashimoto said last week.

“Even if isn’t, we can still close Itami and build a Kansai linear shinkansen that connects Kansai airport to central Osaka in just seven minutes,” he added.

Under Hashimoto’s plan, Itami’s 400 hectares would be turned into what he calls the International Campus Freedom City. Up to 20,000 people, including many foreigners, would live in the area, which would be home to international schools and universities. The common language would be English.

“To turn out talented workers of international stature, all elementary, junior high and high schools in the international free city will be instructed in English,” the plan reads.

“Along with international schools and universities, home-stays with resident foreigners will provide practical education to students and all signs in the city will be in English. Young people from around Japan who want to improve their English will gather, and it will become a tourist spot, with shops and tourist facilities reminding people of overseas.”

The governor envisions an influx of highly skilled foreign workers in certain sectors who would serve as language tutors to interested Japanese students.

“Along with attracting highly skilled foreigners who specialize in biotechnology, new energy and other strategic industries like cutting edge medicine, incentives such as reducing income and residency taxes for foreigners who offer home-stays to Japanese wishing to learn a foreign language in a native linguistic environment could be given,” the plan reads.

Ido also sees an international future for Itami, but one where foreigners arrive and go elsewhere, not live, work or serve as language tutors and tourist attractions.

“Rather than close Itami, why not reopen it to international flights?” Ido said, a sentiment echoed in places like Kyoto and Shiga prefectures, where travel time to Kansai is much longer than to Itami.

Both Ido and Hashimoto seem convinced that future air travel demand in the Kansai region will remain strong in the coming decades.

But projections of demographic changes show problems with this assumption.

Estimates by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research are that Osaka Prefecture’s population, about 8.8 million in 2005, will shrink to 8.3 million by 2020 and to 7.3 million by 2035, while Hyogo will decrease from about 5.6 million in 2005 to 4.8 million by 2020.

By 2035, the institute calculates, about 19.5 percent of Osaka residents and 20.5 percent of Hyogo residents will be over 75 years old, clouding the prospects that the current market size, especially for business travel, can be sustained.

The demographic trends bring into question if enough flights could be added for either Itami airport to increase its current profit of about ¥4 billion a year or for Kansai International to pay back it’s roughly ¥1 trillion in total debt.

Over the coming weeks, Hashimoto and the Kansai business community, as well as local governments near Kansai International who support his call to close Itami, are expected to refine their proposals to the central government for the future of all three airports.

By June, the central government is expected to decide on a strategy. Transport Minister Seiji Maehara has indicated that while he opposes closing Itami, he might favor a reduction in flights.

In the meantime, however, Tokyo has to deal with two Kansai governors who will likely oppose each other until a decision is reached.