When Central Japan International Airport in Tokoname, Aichi Prefecture, opens Thursday, it hopes to become the nation’s main international air freight hub.

To succeed, experts say the new Chubu airport will have to host a large volume of international cargo flights and lower its landing fees.

“Our target is to win back the cargo originating in the Chubu region that is being handled by Narita and Kansai airports,” said Yasuo Takayanagi, an official at Chubu airport’s Tokyo office.

The new 24-hour offshore airport, with a 3,500-meter runway, will replace Nagoya airport, which is much smaller and only has five cargo flights a week. Nagoya airport, which also accommodates an Air Self-Defense Force base, will remain open for small aircraft.

The Chubu region is a major production base for many domestic manufacturers, including Sony Corp. and Toyota Motor Corp. The region comprises nine prefectures, including Aichi, Mie, Nagano, Fukui and Shiga.

Backed by a strong economy in the region, the new airport is attracting a great deal of attention for its potential to become a major cargo hub.

According to a 2003 Nagoya Customs survey, imported goods and exports of commodities produced in the Chubu region totaled 615,000 tons.

But 83.9 percent of the cargo was handled by airports other than Nagoya, with 55.6 percent going through Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture and 26.8 percent via Kansai International Airport in Osaka Bay.

Chubu airport will have 26 cargo flights a week initially, hoping to handle 270,000 tons of international freight in fiscal 2005.

“For the owners of goods in the Chubu region, it is much faster and cheaper to use Chubu airport” than transporting them to Narita and Kansai airports, Takayanagi said, adding that Chubu’s cargo-handling capacity almost matches that of Kansai.

Auto-parts maker Denso Corp., a subsidiary of Toyota based in Kariya, Aichi Prefecture, plans to shift 10 percent of its cargo shipments from Narita to Chubu.

“Chubu is much more convenient because we can shorten the delivery time and reduce costs,” Denso spokesman Kanya Kuroda said.

About 55 percent of the firm’s air freight is currently moved through Narita and 30 percent through Kansai.

The firm has nine plants in Aichi Prefecture and its air-freight volume in fiscal 2004 is expected to reach a record 9,000 tons, Kuroda said.

But electronic giants Sony Corp. and Sharp Corp., which also have plants in the Chubu region, have taken a wait-and-see attitude, since Chubu will have just 26 cargo flights a week in the winter, compared with Narita’s 263 and Kansai’s 134. In addition, most of the flights from Chubu are bound for Asian destinations, with only nine flights to the United States and none to Europe.

Passenger flights can also carry freight, and Chubu will have 295 international passenger flights per week during the summer compared with 220 at Nagoya airport last summer. Narita has 2,790 international passenger flights listed on its current timetable and Kansai 552.

Both Narita and Kansai airports say that although the opening of Chubu might affect them to some extent, the impact should be limited as growth is expected in overall air-freight traffic.

Aviation analyst Kazuki Sugiura said that although increasing the number of international flights at Chubu is crucial to attract more customers in the future, 26 cargo flights and 295 international passenger flights per week was the best it could do at the start of operations.

“The volume of cargo Chubu handles in the first six months will determine whether the new airport can draw more flights in the future,” Sugiura said.

Regarding landing fees, Chubu official Takayanagi said lowering them in the near future is unlikely unless the airport achieves its goal of turning an annual profit by the end of six years.

The landing fee for a Boeing 747-400, for example, is 655,700 yen at Chubu airport, compared with 948,000 yen at Narita and 825,600 yen at Kansai. But it is still much higher compared with 322,700 yen at South Korea’s Inchon airport and 374,400 yen at Hong Kong airport.

If Chubu wants to succeed in the long run, it will have to be more competitive with other Asian hub airports by reducing landing fees, said Anthony Concil, an official at the International Air Transport Association.

“Slashing landing fees will bring in more flights, resulting in the expansion of (its) network,” Concil said. “Cargo is less destination-specific. It flows through hubs with price advantages.”

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