The transport ministry is in a dilemma over whether to extend Narita International Airport’s “interim” second runway northward or pursue its original southward plan.

Land, Infrastructure and Transport Minister Kazuo Kitagawa was in a bind Friday when Narita International Airport Corp. President Masayuki Kurono informed him that negotiations with owners of land in the Toho district just south of the runway had stalled.

Kitagawa, frustrated by the impasse, also was not able to give the go-ahead to extend the runway northward. Ministry officials said they will decide the matter soon after thorough consideration.

Airport officials, hoping to extend the 2,180-meter runway to 2,500 meters, have long tried to bring the seven owners of 3.8 hectares of the land to the negotiating table. But it was only last week that the two sides had their first official dialogue.

The impasse highlights not only the sometimes bloody 39-year conflict the airport has waged with adjacent landowners, but also the difficulty in striking a balance in public projects between the public good and individual rights.

“(Individual rights) and national interests are not something that we can compare because they are disparate concepts,” an official at the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry said. “But we have to strike a balance.”

Narita airport opened in 1978 with a single 4,000-meter runway, becoming the nation’s main international gateway.

To acquire the initial land, the government had to evict protesting landowners. The government has continued to fight with landowners for every extra scrap of real estate acquired toward the goal of expanding the airport and having two parallel runways.

The process to build the second runway involved repeated talks with landowners, who in the end only agreed to sell their plots after authorities apologized for past forceful acts of eminent domain.

Not all landowners participated in the talks, prompting the government to open the second runway in 2002 without their consent, and in time for the FIFA World Cup soccer finals cohosted by Japan and South Korea. But the new strip reflected a compromise.

The second runway was made 320 meters shorter than intended, restricting its use by large jetliners, and was located an inconvenient 800 meters north of the original plans to bypass landowners who refused to vacate.

Holdouts living right off the south end of the runway have had to contend with the constant noise of low-flying jetliners — sometimes as low as 40 meters — either approaching or taking off. This has only further hardened their resolve to stay put.

With demand for an expanded Narita airport rising and competition with other airports in Asia intensifying, extending the second runway has become urgent because long-haul jumbo jets cannot take off from the short strip.

The airport has already acquired an 11-hectare stretch north of the runway, but the ministry and NIAC continue to press for a southward extension to expedite traffic flow to and from the terminal buildings.

If the runway is extended north, the plan to buy the Toho district land will be abandoned. But more importantly, it also means the residents there will have to put up with even louder noise from larger aircraft taking off.

“We need to avoid extending the runway (north) while the residents (at the south end) remain, but we cannot leave the runway ‘tentative’ any longer,” because it hurts the national interest and hinders the country’s economic growth, a transport ministry official said.

The airport operator — which was privatized in April 2004 — and the government are under pressure to quickly reach a land deal.

In March, NIAC President Kurono sent a letter of apology to the landowners for forcibly opening the second runway. He also said in person he was sorry to five Toho landowners when on Thursday they held their first official talks.

The airport in March also curbed departures and arrivals before 6:30 a.m. and after 10 p.m. Before this, operations spanned 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.

Rescheduling 30 flights per week required difficult coordination with airlines and airports overseas. A Narita airport official said, “this is the best we can do to show good faith.”

But one landowner who owns 1.5 hectares in the district is far from satisfied, saying NIAC should close the second runway. Curbing its hours of operation will make no difference in the number of flights, he said. As of February, 147 planes a day flew over the district.

“They must have thought that we wouldn’t be able to stand the noise and would get out soon,” said the farmer, who declined to be named. “They had got everything their way and now they find themselves bogged down and suddenly started talking about sincerity. I don’t think that’s the way the process of public projects should be.”

The original Narita airport plan, with two runways, was unveiled in 1966. It required the purchase of 1,065 hectares from some 1,200 landowners.

Protests by the residents and farmers drew leftwing radicals to the movement. Violent clashes between the opponents and authorities resulted in 13 deaths, including five police officers.

Applying the lessons learned from Narita airport, Kansai International Airport in Osaka and Central Japan International Airport in Aichi Prefecture were built on man-made islands.

Aviation analyst Kazuki Sugiura said the prolonged battle has only brought about an unfortunate situation for both sides. He believes the government and public should learn from this experience for future projects.

“Opponents of a project should provide alternatives instead of simply protesting to the government,” while the government should put more emphasis on promoting dialogue, Sugiura said.

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