Can Narita, Haneda live in harmony?

Maehara's controversial plan to develop a hub airport raises fundamental policy questions


Transport minister Seiji Maehara’s controversial proposal floated this week to turn Tokyo’s Haneda airport into a 24-hour international hub caused a firestorm of anger in Chiba Prefecture, where Narita International Airport is a key part of the economy.

The plan would mark a huge shift in the government’s long-standing aviation policy that Narita is for international flights while Haneda handles domestic traffic.

Following are questions and answers about the two airports:

Why has the government kept the two airports’ roles separate?

The answer can be found in the history of Narita airport.

With overcrowding becoming a problem at Haneda, which initially handled international flights, the government decided in the 1960s to build a new airport in the Narita area.

The plan met with fierce protests from local farmers. The government eventually acquired the needed land by forcing them to surrender their property in two phases under eminent domain.

The move led to brutal clashes between protesters and riot police. Three officers were killed, more than 150 people were injured, and 375 protesters were arrested during the second phase of land acquisition in 1971.

Although the non-24-hour airport finally opened, with one runway, in 1978, the protest movement continued coupled with an ultra-leftist element at the time.

By 1991, the issue finally moved toward a peaceful solution through dialogue, with a group of five intellectuals helping to set up meetings between the two sides. Although violent clashes are a thing of the past, some local residents still keep up the fight, especially in connection with the airport’s second runway, and its later extension to accommodate jumbo jet takeoffs.

With so much time and effort devoted to building the international hub at Narita, it is not easy for the government to change the separation policy.

How is Maehara handling the concerns of Chiba locals?

Because international airports generally bring economic benefits to their area, Maehara’s plan naturally drew fire from leaders of municipalities around Narita as well as Chiba Gov. Kensaku Morita. They fear losing business to Haneda.

Morita visited Maehara on Wednesday to learn more. Maehara told Morita his plan does not include shifting international flights from Narita.

They agreed that “the two airports will be viewed in an integrated manner, and their roles should be divided in an efficient way.”

With that agreement, Morita said he could go along with the plan and explained that there was a misunderstanding between him and Maehara.

Wednesday’s talks may have eased local concerns for now, but Maehara has yet to describe a feasible way to increase Haneda’s international flights without affecting traffic at Narita.

Does Haneda currently handle international flights?

Yes. They are categorized as “chartered.”

Since 2001, Haneda has been opening routes to Seoul, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and starting Oct. 25 to Beijing. They are called “chartered” so the government doesn’t have to admit Haneda is operating regular international flights.

Haneda will add a fourth runaway next October, which would boost the airport’s annual capacity for takeoffs and landings by 110,000.

Why is Maehara aiming to expand Haneda’s international flights?

Maehara says Japan currently has no hub airport, and South Korea’s Incheon International Airport has technically become a hub for many Japanese traveling abroad.

This situation “should be fundamentally reviewed,” he said Tuesday. “We need a hub airport, and I think Haneda is the first airport that has the potential to play that role.”

He also says there are currently 40 countries that have not signed aviation agreements with Japan, and 75 airlines want to increase flights at Narita.

While the 2,500-meter extension to Narita’s second runway will be operational from next week, it is difficult for the airport, an hour’s train ride from central Tokyo, to undergo drastic expansion due to its property issues, let alone operate 24 hours.

Since Haneda, merely a 15-minute train trip from central Tokyo, sits in filled in portions of Tokyo Bay, its expansion has basically only drawn flak from fishermen, who have been compensated to fish elsewhere.

Overall, how is Maehara’s plan being welcomed?

The reaction has been mixed.

While it drew criticism from Chiba locals, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, a longtime advocate of expanding Haneda’s role, welcomed the idea.

Fujio Mitarai, chairman of the Japan Business Federation (Nippon Keidanren), also praised the plan, saying Japan needs an aviation hub.

Meanwhile, leaders in other regions, especially Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto, who oversees Kansai International Airport, have expressed concerns as an increased global role for Haneda could exacerbate the financial problems of money-losing regional airports, including Kansai.