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Need to back up sinking Kansai airport stymies region ahead of G20, elections

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

When Kansai airport in Osaka Prefecture was shut down earlier this month after Typhoon Jebi flooded the main runway and terminal building — and caused a tanker to break loose and crash into the only bridge to the mainland — there were fears the damage meant the region’s largest and only international airport would be closed for a long time and cripple the local economy.

Instead, nearly three weeks later, the sinking offshore airport’s runway and terminal building are back in operation and all passenger flights have resumed. Train service across the bridge was restored on Tuesday.

The speed of Kansai International Airport’s recovery surprised a lot of people, including Osaka officials.

“Wow, that was quick,” Osaka Mayor Hirofumi Yoshimura tweeted on Sept. 15 when it was announced that the trains were resuming operations. “That’s only about two weeks since the tanker rammed the bridge.”

The faster-than-predicted recovery now leaves questions about what happens to plans for Kobe and Itami airports to accept up to 35 round-trip international flights rerouted from Kansai airport. At present, only two flights — an arrival from and a departure to Hong Kong next month via Japan Airlines at Itami airport — have been announced.

Yet, local business leaders and Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui remain committed to having the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry grant temporary international routes to both airports.

On Sept. 18 Kansai Economic Federation Chairman Masayoshi Matsumoto called for relaxing restrictions on international flights, telling reporters it was time to seriously discuss how to divide the international routes among Kansai’s three airports.

“Recognition of the damage done by Typhoon Jebi offers a fresh opportunity for local governments and the Kansai business community to discuss what needs to be done,” he said.

Matsumoto added, however, that there’s no point in quickly having lots of international flights take off from Kobe and Itami. He said the priority should be to ensure that additional flights from the three airports will not create noise pollution concerns or safety issues regarding air space.

The remarks came a day after transport minister Keiichi Ishii toured Kansai airport and told reporters that local approval for new flights was critical.

“A new agreement by local governments and the business community is needed,” Ishii said.

Kansai faces short- and long-term questions over international operations at its three airports. In the short term, customs, immigration and quarantine operations must be established along with other temporary logistical operations and services to handle international passengers.

The more difficult questions are the longer-term ones.

Especially if, as Matsui and the business community want, Kobe and Itami are remodeled to serve as “backup” international airports in case something happens to Kansai airport again. Or even if they continue to offer permanent, regularly scheduled flights abroad.

The possibility starts with demand at each airport.

The operator of all three airports, Kansai Airports Co. Ltd., says that no airlines based overseas have applied to have international flights depart from Itami or Kobe airports. If operational costs at both become much cheaper than at Kansai airport, that would draw interest from low-cost carriers from East Asia, in particular.

On the other hand, further lowering landing fees to attract new routes or keep current ones at any one airport could lead to less revenue at the other two.

But such questions are taking a back seat to more immediate concerns about losing business to other regional competitors.

That might seem strange, given that flights have resumed and most train and bus services to Kansai airport from Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, Kobe and other parts of the region are back to normal. The repair work on the bridge is ongoing, but it hasn’t created any major transport delays so far.

Yet Kansai officials still fear that international passengers will be slow to return, noting they could decide to use Chubu Centrair in Nagoya or book a flight from Itami airport to Narita instead.

The transport ministry aims to complete the bridge repairs by the end of April 2019. That’s not only in time for the Golden Week holidays, it’s also two months before Osaka hosts the Group of 20 summit, which is expected to bring world leaders and 30,000 others to the region.

Security and logistical concerns had been raised in the wake of the typhoon about what the various G20 delegations will do if transport to Kansai airport remains problematic during their preparatory visits to Osaka prior to the summit.

Now, however, the bigger concerns are less about technical and logistical problems and more about politics and marketing.

For Kansai’s leaders, this means convincing the central government and the airlines to continue with plans to have Kobe and Itami serve as international airports despite the fact that Kansai’s flights are back to normal and despite the fact that the airlines appear uninterested in offering lots of regular flights at either.

With local elections in April 2019, Kansai-area politicians who want the region to have three international airports will have to convince voters in the coming months that it’s still possible, a task that seems harder now than it did just a few weeks ago.

Kansai Perspective appears on the fourth Monday of each month, focusing on Kansai-area developments and events of national importance with a Kansai connection.