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Newly appointed transport minister Kazuo Kitagawa says he will push for construction of a second runway by 2007 at the debt-strapped Kansai International Airport.

New Komeito policy chief Kitagawa, 51, was appointed minister of land, infrastructure and transport in the latest Cabinet shakeup. He replaced former health minister Chikara Sakaguchi as the only minister from New Komeito.

Kitagawa says he believes the airport can become an international gateway to Asia.

“I still believe demand (for use of Kansai airport) will grow from a long-term perspective,” he said, reckoning the airport will take on greater significance as Asia enhances its position in the world economy.

The transport ministry requested 20 billion yen to construct the second runway.

But following a cutback in the budget, the Finance Ministry doubts the project will be profitable and has voiced reluctance over pumping taxpayer money into the potential white elephant.

Kansai airport, which opened in September 1994, is laden about 1.3 trillion yen in debts. The number of passengers declined from about 20.5 million in fiscal 2000 to 13.7 million in fiscal 2003.

The central government has been propping up the ailing airport with 9 billion yen in annual subsidies.

Debate over the necessity of three airports serving the Kansai region has given rise to further concerns for Kansai airport’s survival.

The two other airports are Itami, which handles domestic flights, and Kobe, which is scheduled to open in March 2006.

“As a lawmaker from a constituency in the region, I’ve been urging the parties involved to clarify the role of the three airports,” Kitagawa said.

He claimed the Itami and Kobe airports will have a limited role compared with Kansai airport.

Boeing 747s will be banned from using Itami airport as early as next year due to noise pollution concerns. Kobe airport is meanwhile smaller than Kansai airport.

Separately, Kitagawa said he doubted whether his ministry should allow scandal-tainted Mitsubishi Fuso Truck & Bus Corp. to sell new trucks. The transport ministry recently gave the go-ahead to the truck maker to release new models.

The revelation of Mitsubishi Fuso’s involvement in a series of defect coverups in past months moved the transport ministry to tighten the screening of all new vehicles built by the company.

“I’ve heard that (the Road Transport Bureau) has dealt quite carefully with the screening,” he said.

But Kitagawa wondered aloud if it is all right to grant approval to a company that has betrayed the public’s trust.

Ministry officials said they thoroughly checked the vehicles, spending seven months on screening procedures that usually take about two.

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