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As Kansai airport partially reopens, officials discuss temporarily routing some flights elsewhere

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

As Kansai International Airport partially reopened Friday with a few domestic flights after being flooded by a typhoon, the central government and the region were pushing forward with a proposal to temporarily route some international flights to Osaka’s Itami airport and Kobe Airport.

A total of 19 flights — 17 passenger flights by Kansai airport-based low-cost carrier Peach Aviation, and two Japan Airlines cargo flights — took off and landed on the airport’s undamaged Runway B. They parked at the Terminal 2 building, which was also largely unscathed when Typhoon Jebi flooded the airport on Tuesday.

Later on Friday, Peach Aviation said that 12 international flights from Kansai airport would resume on Saturday.

But with no clear date set for a full reopening, there is grave concern in Kansai that foreign visitors will book flights to other parts of Japan. Local firms may also be forced to send their goods overseas on cargo flights departing from Tokyo or other cities, incurring additional expenses.

What worries Kansai’s manufacturers in particular is the past example of Kobe’s decline as a center for international cargo after a natural disaster affected the city.

During the 1970s, according to the transport ministry, Kobe was the world’s top-ranked container port in terms of annual volume. But in 1990 it had fallen to 5th place, then by 2005 — a decade after the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake heavily damaged port areas — it had sunk further to 23rd place.

The Great Hanshin quake forced many firms to relocate or use other ports, and further shifts to cheaper ports in other parts of Asia in the early part of this century meant that, by 2015, Kobe had fallen to 59th place.

“I want the central government to use Itami and Kobe airports as replacements for the functions of Kansai airport for the time being,” said Osaka Gov. Ichiro Matsui on Thursday after a meeting with officials in Tokyo.

On Friday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with members of the Osaka chapter of the Liberal Democratic Party and promised to work with local governments regarding increased activity at Kobe and Itami airports. At a news conference Friday, transport minister Keiichi Ishii said that Kansai airport’s Runway A would provisionally open around the middle of this month. He added that efforts were underway to expand operating hours at both Itami and Kobe airports.

However, Ishii also said that the ministry was discussing transferring international cargo flights to Narita and Chubu Centrair International Airport — a prospect that has Kansai area businesses concerned given the additional transportation costs to these airports.

Yet arranging for international flights to land at Itami and Kobe could take some time. Neither airport has the necessary customs, quarantine, or immigration facilities. Operating hours are also limited. Kobe Airport currently operates only between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. Itami is open between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m.

Matsui’s idea is to expand operating hours at both airports by having them open one hour earlier and stay open one hour later, and he said Friday that he would submit a formal proposal next week.

To accomplish Matsui’s plan involves getting the approval of the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, setting up the necessary international facilities at both sites, and convincing at least a few Japanese and international airlines currently at Kansai airport to fly into Itami or Kobe.

How long that would take, and whether Kansai airport might be back in full or almost full operation by then, is unknown. On Friday, Kansai Airports, the consortium which operates all three airports, would only say that discussions on the details of international flight operations at Kobe and Itami were underway.