Several weeks ago while walking through Tokyo’s Ueno Station a friend and I passed a poster advertising the new Ibaraki airport. After we boarded our train, we started talking about the poster. Neither of us were aware that Ibaraki had an airport and we wondered why the prefecture needed one.

Later, I learned that the airport, which is now the Japan Air Self-Defense Force’s Hyakuri Air Base, won’t open until March 2010, and that many of our questions had already been asked by media outlets, not to mention average people who live in Ibaraki, which is just northeast of Tokyo. Some of these questions have been anticipated by the bureaucrats in charge of promoting the project and answered on their Web site (www.pref.ibaraki.jp/bukyoku/kuko).

The most obvious question is: Why spend all that money when Haneda airport in Tokyo and Fukushima airport are within a reasonable distance? The answer is that a new airport will contribute to Ibaraki’s existing transportation network by providing economic “balance.” But isn’t it risky to build a new airport at a time when airlines are cutting domestic routes? No problem, says the promotion group, which states — without citing any figures — that it “expects the demand to be great.” And as for the issue of funding, Ibaraki airport is small enough to qualify for greater central government assistance, so don’t worry about the cost.

Plan and hope

The vagueness of these answers illustrates how public works projects are conceptualized. Rather than responding to some clear demand, government organs simply plan a project and assume — or hope — that demand will materialize. This truth is most obvious in the answer to the question about the routes and number of flights offered at the new airport. The promotion group mentions some proposed routes, but also says that these matters have yet to be worked out with the airlines, which sounds to me as if they decided to build an airport before they asked any airlines if they wanted to use it.

Tokyo Shimbun reported that, in another example of putting the horse behind the cart, the airport promotion group carried out a survey to gauge demand among business flyers last December — after construction on the airport had started. The survey was sent to companies as far away as Gunma Prefecture. Only 24 percent of the questionnaires were returned, and based on the answers, the new airport could expect to be patronized by 40,000 business users a year, which is far below the 180,000 that the local government projected before it began construction. When asked about these results by the newspaper, a representative of the prefecture said the survey sampling was too small to be meaningful, but that he was sure Ibaraki residents “had great expectations” for the airport.

Shizuoka airport, which will open a year from now, may provide an idea of what Ibaraki can expect since its distance from Haneda Airport is comparable to Ibaraki’s. JAL has so far agreed to provide four flights to two cities, ANA two flights to two cities, and Asiana one flight to Seoul. That’s a total of five routes, much less than the 13 routes proposed by the prefecture when it started building the airport.

Fukushima airport, which is one of the options for Northern Kanto residents right now, has operated in the red ever since it opened in 1992, according to the Fukushima edition of the Asahi Shimbun. The prefecture has spent about ¥3 billion over the years to make up for the deficit, while the number of passengers has decreased by 70 percent since its peak.

But potential demand isn’t the only factor that determines the feasibility of a regional airport. Airlines also consider runway length, which determines the size of the aircraft and thus how many passengers can be carried; the fees an airport charges for landings and takeoffs; and whether or not there are other means of transportation available to potential passengers. An airline representative told the Asahi that one of the reasons Shizuoka airport is not appealing is that it also has a Shinkansen stop and access to a major expressway, both of which can reduce the number of potential air passengers.

Cutting flights

JAL is thinking about cutting flights to and from Aomori airport after the Shin-Aomori terminal of the Tohoku Shinkansen opens in 2010.

Asahi surveyed 46 of the country’s 97 airports, many of which were built in the 1990s after the United States pressured Japan to buy more U.S.-made airplanes. The air transportation industry was also deregulated during this time, allowing airlines to cut unprofitable routes, and since then there’s been a huge rise in the number of flights to Haneda, since it’s the only destination for which many smaller airports can guarantee passengers. Thirty-three of the airports surveyed, in fact, say they want to increase the number of flights to Haneda even more.

That’s why Haneda is building a new runway, but according to the article it won’t be enough. The transportation ministry says there is demand for 110,000 additional arrivals and departures per year at Haneda, but the airlines can’t envision the runway being able to handle more than 50,000. Consequently, the mayor of Yokohama has reneged on his pledge to contribute funds to the new runway because Haneda isn’t going to add enough international flights. Yokohama, the third biggest metropolis in the country, believes it deserves a closer international airport than Narita, which is located in Chiba Prefecture near the border with Ibaraki.

So at least Ibaraki residents don’t have to worry about international flights. In fact, it may be easier for them to access Narita than it is to get to Ibaraki airport. At present, there is only one two-lane road that goes anywhere near Hyakuri Air Base and no train. That’s usually the case with small regional airports, which is why Shizuoka is reportedly going to offer free parking. You have to do something to get people to come.