Staff writer

In a bid to proceed with the expansion of Narita airport, the Transport Ministry officially unveiled plans Friday to build a shorter runway than earlier envisioned.

Transport Minister Jiro Kawasaki announced that the originally planned 2,500-meter north-south runway at New Tokyo International Airport in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, will be shortened by 300 meters and start 800 meters north of its earlier designated launch site.

It is now scheduled to be ready in time for the World Cup soccer finals in June 2002.

In addition, the ministry will continue to seek dialogue with landowners whose opposition has held off expansion in a bid to build the longer runway, Kawasaki said.

At any rate, with the plan for the shorter runway, the project, pending legal proceedings, will finally get started, 21 years after the airport opened with a lone 4,000-meter runway.

The ministry plans to begin the legal proceedings around September, after taking three months to explain the plan to the local community.

It decided to build the shorter runway due to growing demands from the aviation industry, which sees the expansion as a business opportunity.

Narita airport has reached capacity and cannot cater to the airlines of 33 countries that would like to begin service to Japan’s main international gateway. It also has a backlog of requests from carriers that hope to increase their existing flights.

The shorter runway would create an additional capacity of about 60,000 slots a year; the airport currently handles about 125,000 landings and takeoffs a year.

There are conflicting views over how the shorter runway might affect talks with landowners.

“We are taking a chance,” a senior ministry official said. “We are aware of concerns that the proposed runway may work out negatively. But, on the other hand, if the plan gets started, it may lead to a dialogue with the landowners.”

The opposing landowners remain steadfast, however. “We will continue farming here as we do now,” said Shoji Shimamura, an airport foe who lives on the expansion site. “The government does not appear to have changed a bit since it decided to build the airport here. When they say dialogue, it’s a dialogue to build the second runway.”

When the ministry launched the airport project in the 1960s, it neglected to consult local farmers, triggering a legacy of opposition — sometimes violent. Although the ministry adopted a policy of dialogue in 1991 that led some landowners to sell their land, it struck an impasse with others.

“The options we have are to oppose (the second runway) or cooperate,” Shimamura said. “We cannot begin a dialogue with the government if the purpose of the talk is to build a second runway.”

The planned shorter runway — about 400 meters from Shimamura’s house — would increase noise pollution, which some could interpret as a strong-arm tactic to force the landowners out.

The ministry said it would provide noise prevention measures for those who need it, noting that in Itami, Hyogo Prefecture, residents live as close as 130 meters from a runway at Osaka airport.

Some ministry officials believe dialogue cannot resolve the impasse.

“It has taken too long,” a ministry official said. “Some people have gotten used to the current (stalled) situation, which is not healthy.”

While the local community bears the burden of unusually tight security because of extremists opposing the project, the central government has offered extensive financial support to local governments in the form of building infrastructure and countermeasures for airport noise.

Ironically, this has created a community reliant on a one-runway airport — a situation that will remain for as long as the expansion is halted, the official said.

The proposed shorter runway is by no means ideal. While it would be able to handle some jumbo jets and midsize airliners, it would be unable to cope with long-distance international flights such as those to Europe and the United States, said Satoshi Iwamura, director general of the ministry’s civil aviation bureau.

In addition, the new expansion plan is expected to trigger debate among the ministry, domestic airlines and foreign governments over slot allocations.

Airlines would have to cooperate to use the 2,200-meter runway, which would only be able to handle smaller or more limited-range aircraft, Iwamura said.

In a simple calculation, transferring midsize airliners using the existing 4,000-meter runway to the shorter runway would free up about 30,000 slots for international long-range jumbo jets, Iwamura said.

However, it remains to be seen whether the additional slots would be able to meet the demands of airlines in the 33 countries that hope to begin service to Narita airport.

On another front, expanding now could hurt the domestic industry.

Domestic carriers continue to struggle with declining air fares and restructuring and are not in a position to drastically increase their fleets, which raises the possibility that a quickly expanded Narita airport could allow foreign carriers to fill the void.

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