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Does Kansai need three international airports?

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

Twenty-four years after Kansai airport’s opening, Typhoon Jebi roared through, flooding the main runway, parts of the main terminal building and dislodging a tanker in the adjacent bay that drifted into the facility’s connecting bridge.

By the end of Tuesday, Sept. 4, leaders in the Kansai region finally understood that their international manufacturing and tourism sectors were reliant on an airport just a few meters above sea level, reachable mostly via a structurally vulnerable bridge.

Over the next few days, they rushed to restore whatever domestic and international flights they could at undamaged Terminal 2 and Runway B, despite questions about whether economic concerns over a closed airport were taking priority over safety questions about the bridge.

Kansai airport now aims to restore all passenger flights by Sept. 21. International and domestic flights are slowly returning, and about 30 percent of the total number of pre-typhoon flights are back in operation. But getting there from Osaka, Kyoto or Kobe takes longer than usual due to limited bus service and the fact that, as of last week, the trains were still not running.

Many Kansai visitors thus switched to Nagoya’s Chubu airport (about an hour and a half by train from Kyoto Station) or booked international flights out of Narita and Haneda airports via Osaka’s Itami airport. Flights were leaving Kansai airport last week about half full.

Despite Kansai airport’s quicker than expected recovery, efforts are underway to turn Kobe airport (over an hour from Kansai airport by bus and train, or a high-speed ferry across Osaka Bay) and Itami airport (30 minutes from Osaka Station) into “temporary” international airports and operate 35 round-trip international and domestic flights total.

How long it might be until those airports are ready to accept international flights is unclear. There are the obvious preparations needed at both airports, including the installation of customs, quarantine and immigration facilities.

Discussion is also needed with the airlines, especially the international airlines. Local news reports give the impression that Kansai’s leaders are worried mostly about Japanese airlines getting domestic and international slots at Itami and Kobe and not whether major international airlines could, and would, quickly agree to use either airport.

Many international airlines at Kansai airport are East Asian low-cost carriers.

If landing fees at Itami or Kobe are cheaper, would they return to Kansai airport and its higher landing fees? And as international cargo flights are rerouting elsewhere, how easily, and cheaply, can they return to Kansai? Especially if other airports offer, as they surely will, enticements for them to remain.

And what about Kobe and Itami airports? One finds it difficult to believe they will happily relinquish the extra flights once Kansai airport is back to 100 percent operations. Especially Kobe airport, where Kobe officials feel somewhat left out of the tourism boom benefitting other parts of the Kansai region.

It’s no secret many Kansai leaders have always wanted Kobe and Itami to be permanent international airports. If that happens, Kansai would be the only place in Japan with three international airports, a potential competitive advantage over all other regions, including Tokyo and its two international airports.

With the Group of 20 Leaders’ Summit in Osaka next year, plus — so they hope — the 2025 World Expo, as well as plans for a casino resort aimed at foreign visitors, one can easily envision Kansai’s leaders in the smoke-filled backrooms of the Diet and the transport ministry arguing that the time is right for three permanent Kansai international airports, a form of regional revitalization that would assert benefits not only for Kansai in the short and medium term, but all of Japan in the long term.

Possibly. But the transport ministry would be wise to first ensure three international airports are truly needed. Not only during the current tourist boom and for one-time international events, but in the future, when the population of the Kansai region is much older and smaller.

View from Osaka is a monthly column that examines the latest news from a Kansai perspective.