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Faced with a drop in demand from global carriers, Narita International Airport is increasingly focusing on domestic flights, particularly those run by low-cost carriers.

The shift is inevitable. In spring 2014, the government increased the slots available at Haneda airport in Tokyo, and airlines leaped at the chance to transfer their long-haul international flights to the center of the capital instead of Chiba Prefecture.

As a result, the number of international passengers who used Haneda that August surged 43.2 percent from a year earlier to 1.07 million, while Narita logged a 6.5 percent drop to 2.59 million, according to preliminary data compiled by the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry. August is the busiest period for air travel.

The trend is expected to accelerate as the government further develops Haneda’s international capacity ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Narita International Airport Corp. (NAA) has thus turned to low-cost carriers, which first set foot at Narita in 2012 and have been steadily growing there.

At present, four such airlines — Jetstar Japan, Vanilla Air, Spring Airlines Japan and Peach Aviation — fly a total of 12 domestic routes from Narita, accounting for more than 60 percent of the domestic flights using the airport.

In the April-September first half of fiscal 2014, the number of domestic passengers at Narita set a new high of 3.06 million, making up for the shortfall in international passengers.

Low-cost airlines are the “pillar to support the growth of Narita,” an NAA official said.

On April 8, Narita will open a terminal newly built for the carriers, capable of processing 7.5 million passengers a year. With its extensive international network, Narita will be more convenient to transit passengers when LCCs increase Narita-based routes, said NAA President Makoto Natsume.

“We would like to establish our position as a hub airport representing East Asia,” Natsume said.

But despite Narita’s expectations, low-cost carriers — known for their frequent, short hops, small fleets and minimal staffing — are short of pilots to drive their expansion.

Vanilla Air canceled 154 flights in June last year due to a string of pilot retirements, while Spring Airlines delayed the launch of Narita-based flights for a month because pilot training took longer than expected.

The airlines cannot compete financially with major airlines in hiring pilots, an official said. But Narita says it will try to cooperate in whatever they need, given that the airport’s future depends heavily on them.

“We will meet LCCs’ requests as much as possible,” said an NAA executive.

NAA has already taken a series of measures, such as cutting charges on usage of the new third terminal and discounting parking fees for passengers taking early morning flights. But it can do more to generate “mutual benefits” with LCCs, such as reducing its exorbitant landing fees, which are the highest in the world, said Kazunori Morisaki, senior researcher at the Japan Aviation Management Research.

The new LCC terminal consists of a three-story main building with 50,000 sq. meters of floor space, and a two-story, 7,000-sq.-meter satellite building. To save money, it has adopted low-cost construction methods, such as leaving pipes exposed in the ceiling.

The usage fees paid by LCCs will be “about half of those for the two existing terminals,” an NAA official said.

Jetstar Japan, Vanilla Air and Spring Airlines have already declared that they will relocate to the new terminal.

Airfares charged by LCCs vary greatly depending on the season or number of vacant seats. In Jetstar’s case, basic fares between Narita and Kansai International Airport in Osaka ranged between ¥5,190 and ¥15,990 as of January. Major airlines charge much more for the Haneda-Kansai route, even when train or bus fare to the airport is taken into account.

Although LCCs charge additional fares for baggage and seat reservations, a frequent flyer said, “LCCs are so attractive that a certain level of inconvenience is acceptable.”

A public relations official at Vanilla Air said, “We always gather information for the opening of new routes, expecting an increase in demand for Narita-based flights.”

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