OSAKA — Local government and business leaders in the Kansai region met Thursday with senior transport ministry officials to discuss the future of the area’s three airports.

The issue has become a topic of debate since last fall, when transport minister Chikage Ogi indicated that Osaka airport in the city of Itami, Hyogo Prefecture, would be downsized, a move seen by observers as an indication that the national government wants to direct more air traffic to Kansai International Airport and an airport under construction off Kobe.

In the first of what Kansai Economic Federation Chairman Yoshihisa Akiyama said he hoped would be a series of meetings to discuss the issue, officials of the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry met with Akiyama, Osaka Gov. Fusae Ohta, Osaka Mayor Takafumi Isomura, Hyogo Gov. Toshizo Ido and Kobe Mayor Tatsuo Yada.

Akiyama told a news conference after the meeting that the Kansai leaders stressed to the ministry side the necessity of having three airports, saying Kansai International Airport’s role was to be the international hub, Osaka airport was to serve as a major domestic airport, while Kobe airport, which is scheduled to open in 2005, would be a local airport.

Over the past few years, controversy has surrounded all three.

With demand at Kansai International sluggish and many airlines pulling out of the expensive hub, some in the Finance Ministry, as well as many foreign airlines, have questioned the need for both a second runway — due to be completed in 2007 — and for an airport in Kobe.

The Kobe airport is also opposed by many in the Kansai Economic Federation and a large segment of the general public, but the city, which is funding the airport without major national government assistance, has been pushing for the project since the early 1990s.

The local disagreements and national government concerns over whether both a second runway at Kansai airport and the Kobe airport are needed led to Ogi’s statement, which in turn prompted Kansai leaders to ask for Thursday’s meeting.

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