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A tale of one city (but two airports)

by Mark Schreiber

For the last three decades, air travelers on the Tokyo-Taipei route have utilized Narita International Airport and Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.

But with restoration from last month of international flights between Tokyo’s Haneda Airport and Taipei’s dilapidated Songshan Airport, round-trip travelers will shave four to six hours off their travel time — time that mostly would have been spent traveling from the city centers to the respective airports.

There are shades of deja vu: That the restoration of an air route that had existed well before the jet era can be heralded as “progress” seems to be a symptom of our topsy-turvy times.

But as evidence of the adage that gain can seldom be realized without pain, Aera (Nov. 15) reported that seven female Taiwanese cabin attendants and several dozen of their supporters disrupted the Oct. 31 inauguration ceremony at Songshan Airport to fete the new service with a noisy protest demonstration over the attendants’ dismissal by JAL.

Certainly 2010 will be remembered as an annus horribilus for JAL, which underwent a court-administered bankruptcy back in January. For the past 12 months, the media has regularly reported on the national flag carrier’s efforts at restructuring, and the airline is still struggling with its unions as it attempts such cost-cutting measures as reducing its fleet, dropping domestic and international routes, selling off subsidiaries, and cutting its work force through voluntary early retirement and, that failing, mandatory dismissals.

The reopening of Haneda airport to international operations may even have a favorable effect on JAL’s bottom line, particularly since business travelers may be willing to pay a premium to use Haneda. In any event, its new runway considerably boosts annual capacity from 300,000 takeoffs and landings to 410,000 — roughly equivalent to 150 more flights per day. And by 2013, the annual figure will be further increased to nearly 450,000, of which one flight in five will be to or from overseas.

Efforts by the “Yokoso! Japan” campaign to attract more foreign visitors aside, the overwhelming number of travelers using Haneda airport will, needless to say, be Japanese. As market-watchers have pointed out, being able to fly overseas from Haneda will greatly simplify access for domestic travelers, who, due to the dearth of connecting domestic flights from Narita, have up to now have been obliged to route their journeys through central Tokyo. (Although it can’t really be said that such inconveniences deterred many Japanese from going abroad.)

In the short run, however, growth in Haneda’s international passengers will be incremental, and the lucky international carriers with the new slots will have little flexibility to respond to changes in demand.

Tickets for flights out of Haneda are also more expensive, ranging from around ¥10,000 higher to destinations in Southeast Asia and Hawaii to ¥12,000 to Los Angeles. Nevertheless, demand for Haneda departures has been high from the get-go. Nikkei Trendy (December) quotes the manager of an online ticket sales service as saying that Haneda departures already account for “over 30 percent” of his total ticket sales.

While a good deal of initial media coverage has focused on Haneda’s gleaming new international terminal and its snazzy restaurants and shops — as well as improved access from a relocated Tokyo Monorail station — evening tabloid Nikkan Gendai (Nov. 3) gave a less rosy assessment, echoing users’ complaints of hourlong waits to get into the more popular restaurants and grumbles over a shortage of space for people to sit down and rest.

Although only peripherally related to Haneda, another new development from this year is the “open skies” agreement between the U.S. and Japanese governments to move ahead with industry deregulation, giving carriers much more leeway to open routes and add passenger and cargo flights. In theory, this will encourage competition, benefiting passengers through lower fares and more flights.

Unfortunately, concerns prevail that Japan’s carriers will not fare well in a market driven by genuine competition, especially in their currently weakened financial state and the deflationary economy.

And even with Haneda’s reopening to international travel, Tokyo’s two airports are unable to meet demand. In the meantime, many of Japan’s regional airports look like ghost towns.

In business magazine Zaikai (Nov. 16), Jiro Hanyu, chairman of the Sasagawa Peace Foundation and a former bureaucrat at the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, describes the current airport situation in the capital region as analogous to “trying to pour a 100 liters of water into a 50-liter container.” As things stand now, even two airports do not fully meet the annual demand of 30 million international travelers.

To relieve the bottleneck, Hanyu calls for further expansion of the number of runways at Haneda, even if it exacerbates congestion over Tokyo Bay and noise over central parts of the city.

“If the internationalization of Haneda is to become more than a mere flash in the pan,” says Hanyu, “it will be essential to adopt an aviation administration policy with eyes on the world.”