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Narita and Haneda, the major airports serving Tokyo, set for large-scale capacity boost ahead of 2020 Olympics

by Osamu Tsukimori

Staff Writer

The Tokyo area’s two international gateways are looking to push Japan’s soaring tourist numbers even higher while also putting their Asian rivals on notice by adding more international flights ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics.

Japan’s biggest airport, Haneda, is set to add 50 international routes per day as, starting in late March, the government for the first time will allow aircraft to fly over central Tokyo during the day.

That would raise the number of international passengers at Haneda — officially known as Tokyo International Airport — by 7 million to reach 25 million per year, allowing the hub to leapfrog Kansai International Airport as the nation’s second-busiest in terms of international passenger traffic after Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture.

With the additional flights, the number of international passengers at the two giant airports serving the greater Tokyo area would rise to 57 million per year, putting it closer to rival Asian hubs Singapore (62 million), Seoul (66 million) and Hong Kong (72 million).

“In terms of attracting foreign companies and improving the convenience of airports, Singapore airport is the model that Japanese airports have to emulate,” said aviation analyst Kotaro Toriumi. “That’s why they are beefing up international flights at Haneda. Transit passengers from abroad will also be able to easily enjoy tours in Tokyo for a day or half a day, since it takes more time to get to the heart of Tokyo from Narita.”

It’s not only Haneda that’s getting a capacity boost.

Travelers walk through a departure hall at Narita Airport in Narita, Chiba Prefecture. | BLOOMBERG
Travelers walk through a departure hall at Narita Airport in Narita, Chiba Prefecture. | BLOOMBERG

Amid signs of improving relations with China, highlighted by Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s first state visit as president to Japan next spring, Narita Airport emerged as an unexpected beneficiary last month when Beijing and Tokyo agreed to scrap a cap on landing slots at Chinese airports.

Narita is hoping to secure a significant boost in the number of flights to Shanghai and Beijing.

Chinese airlines had previously been unable to add a single flight — even if they had wanted to — because of the restrictions, which had been in place for years, said Koichi Okawara, executive director of Narita International Airport Corp.

“We’ve been getting a lot of inquiries from Chinese airlines, and we’re hoping to see a significant boost in the number of flights from the winter schedule,” Okawara said.

The efforts have already begun to pay off. Chinese budget carrier Spring Airlines announced Thursday in Tokyo plans to introduce a new route connecting Narita and Shanghai Pudong International Airport from Sunday.

Wang Wei, the chief representative of Spring’s Japan office, said Spring Airlines Japan hopes to launch an additional flight connecting Narita and China as early as this year.

Narita also extended its operating hours for arrivals and departures by one hour, to midnight, starting Sunday, marking the first extension since it began operations primarily as an international airport in 1978.

The extension at Narita, which previously handled flights between 6 a.m. and 11 p.m., applies to one of its two runways, the 4,000-meter-long Runway A. The current cap on hourly flights of 10 for Runway A imposed between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. will also be scrapped, a move likely to contribute greatly to the improved operations of airlines, including cargo carriers, Okawara said.

Nationwide, more and more airports plan to beef up flights ahead of the Olympics, from New Chitose in Hokkaido to Naha Airport in Okinawa Prefecture. The government is aiming to increase the number of foreign visitors to 40 million by 2020 and 60 million by 2030, after official figures showed a record 31.19 million foreign travelers visited Japan in 2018.

The number of foreign visitors to Japan grew 4 percent to a record 24.42 million in January-September from the year before, Japan National Tourism Organization data showed. The figure will likely hit 32 million to 33 million this year, said analyst Toriumi, who predicted the Rugby World Cup will offset a recent sharp decline in South Korean visitors due to worsening bilateral ties.

South Korea accounted for nearly a quarter of all foreign tourists to Japan last year, but visitors from the country fell 58.1 percent, to 201,200, last month, official figures showed.

“Despite a big boost from the flight expansions at Haneda and Narita, it remains unclear whether foreign visitors will reach 40 million in 2020 amid the negative factor in South Korea,” Toriumi said. “After 2020, the number of visitors would likely hover between 40 million and 50 million. To bring it to a 60 million goal for 2030, further expansions in capacity, for example, at airports in Osaka, Fukuoka, Okinawa and Sapporo, would be needed as well as a trump card of nullifying visa requirements for travelers from China and other countries.”

If Japan were to abolish visa requirements for Chinese travelers to Japan, who topped 1 million for the first time in a single month in July, the annual figure would likely double, adding at least 10 million more visitors, Toriumi added.

For now, the additional flight paths over central Tokyo will almost assuredly mean more revenue from travelers.

Maximizing the efficiency of Haneda’s four runways and raising the number of international flights per year by 39,000 to reach 99,000 within peak hours — defined as between 6 a.m. and 10:55 p.m. — will lead to an economic windfall of more than ¥650 billion per year, according to projections by the transport ministry.

The new flight paths will add a total of 50 new landing slots at Haneda, all of them earmarked for international flights. The United States received the biggest allocation, with 24 additional slots, followed by eight slots awarded to flights to and from China, the transport ministry announced last month.

In a bid to allay concerns about increased aircraft noise pollution that would come with the new flights, All Nippon Airways is accelerating a shift to quieter aircraft such as Boeing 777s and 787s and retiring older Boeing 767s, said Hiro Miyagawa, head of global communications at ANA Holdings Inc.

In the long term, officials at the transport ministry are planning to raise the annual number of flights at Haneda and Narita to 1 million from the current 750,000, putting it closer to some of the world’s biggest air travel hubs such as London and New York, said Shota Suyama, deputy director of the ministry’s capital area airports division.

Another major change for Haneda will be the name of what’s now called the International Terminal. Currently the International Terminal handles all international flights for Haneda, but starting in late March, Terminal 2, used mainly by ANA for domestic flights, will expand its usage to international flights.

Currently, when travelers take the Tokyo Monorail from Hamamatsucho Station, the stops at the airport are Haneda Airport International Terminal, followed by Haneda Airport Terminal 2 and Haneda Airport Terminal 1, which is mainly used by Japan Airlines for domestic routes. But starting sometime in March, the International Terminal will become Terminal 3.

“So the stops when you come from Tokyo will be Terminal 3, Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 in that order, which may be confusing, but the terminal names for domestic flights have about a 25-year history,” and many more passengers use the airport for domestic flights than for international ones, said Yasuto Sasaki, vice president of corporate planning at Tokyo International Air Terminal Corp. “So we cannot change the numbers,”

Sasaki said the airport will launch an advertising campaign to raise awareness about the changes.

Narita Airport will also see a major technical update next spring in the form of the so-called One ID smart biometric identification, which makes document-free shopping and boarding possible, marking the first time such a system will be used in Japan.

Ultimately, with Haneda and Narita, Japan is adopting a dual hub airport policy.

Centrally located Haneda is by far the biggest in the country for domestic flights with connections to 48 airports, about double that of Narita. Narita, which opened as a main hub for international flights, now has connections to more than 140 cities globally, including 22 in Japan. Narita is also increasingly becoming a hub for low-cost carriers, which now account for roughly 30 percent of total flights to and from the airport.

Narita’s Terminal 3, which opened in 2015 for low cost carriers, is also expanding as part of a push to raise annual capacity to 9 million passengers by the end of next March and 15 million by the end of March 2022, from 7.5 million now.

While Haneda may have little room for additional flights beyond next March’s expansion, as there is no confirmed plan for adding more capacity, Okawara said that Narita has the most potential for new flights beyond 2020.

In the long term, Narita is planning to extend Runway B by 1 km, to 3,500 meters, and set up a third runway. Though airport officials did not offer a timetable, media reports say that the upgrades may be completed by 2030.


The following are questions and answers with Shota Suyama, deputy director of the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry’s capital area airports division, about Japan’s strategy for Haneda and Narita airports.

  • Could you describe the new flight paths over central Tokyo for flights landing at Haneda Airport set to start next March?

The government in August made a decision to increase the number of international flights during (peak hours)by 39,000 to 99,000 per year from late next March, using the new flight routes.

All of the 50 new landing slots will be allocated to international flights. The new flight paths from the north will apply when there is a southerly wind. There is generally a prevailing southern wind for about 40 percent of the year, especially in the summertime. When there is a northern wind, departing flights will travel north and pass over a path that is closer to the heart of Tokyo than the current path.

The number of departures and arrivals per hour will increase from 80 to 90. Overall capacity, including domestic flights, will also rise to from about 450,000 currently to about 490,000.

  • Will Japan attain its goal of increasing the number of visitors to 40 million by 2020?

There has been some adverse impact to travel by Japan’s tightened export controls against South Korea.

But Narita and Haneda are ramping up flights, and Naha Airport in Okinawa is rolling out a second runway next March and there are additional capacity (improvements) planned for Fukuoka and New Chitose airports. But we’ll need to carefully monitor the situation to see whether we’ll reach the target.

Currently, Haneda and Narita have an annual capacity of handling 750,000 flights, and we aim to raise that to the world’s top level of 1 million, such as in London and New York.

  • Are flights that will travel over central Tokyo only international flights?

It’s a little confusing, but domestic flights will use the new routes as well.

  • I hear that the government set steeper flight paths for landing over central Tokyo amid concerns about noise. Is that unpopular among the airlines?

The International Civil Aviation Organization recommends planes approach the airport at an angle of 3 degrees, but give a range of 2.5 to 3.5 degrees as options. This time it was set at 3.5 degrees to reduce noise impact for the communities. But it would be used only during good weather and southern winds. When the weather is bad, planes will take a detour route with a 3 degree angle in the final approach to the airport.

The 3.5 degree angle has been adopted at Wakkanai Airport in Hokkaido and in Hiroshima, in addition to the U.S. city of San Diego, so this is not something new.

Currently a flight check is underway using a small Cessna aircraft, and we expect the test flights using a passenger jet to start from late January before the new routes take effect in late March.


The following are questions and answers with Koichi Okawara, executive director of Narita International Airport Corp., on the airport’s strategy for the future.

  • How do you foresee aviation demand going forward?

Asia is the biggest market globally, with all institutions projecting growth of at least 5 percent per year.

For Narita, it’s important to capitalize on growing inbound travelers’ demand. Currently, there are restrictions in transport to China. Because Chinese airlines are using full capacity to connect to Narita, they cannot add any flights at all. But when the government announced the additional international flights (at Haneda), they added a line saying that restrictions on China for flights to Narita would be eased significantly.

That means a lot for Narita and we’re getting a lot of inquiries from Chinese airlines. We project a large number of additional flights starting from the winter schedule beginning Sunday.

  • Are you beefing up the airport’s capacity?

We are setting up a rapid exit taxiway for both runways that allows aircraft to get off them more quickly to maximize efficiency.

Currently there are 68 slots for flights per hour but when these upgrades are put into use from the summer schedule starting next March, it would raise the flights to 72 per hour. Currently the prime hours of 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. are fully booked at 68 slots per hour, and it would make a difference to boost that to 72.

Narita and Haneda will compete in a good way to meet rising aviation demand in the metropolitan area. After Haneda’s planned flight additions from next spring, Narita will probably be the one to meet growing demand. In that sense, we need to steadily carry out the setup of a new (3,500-meter) Runway C and the extension of Runway B by 1,000 meters to 3,500 meters. Currently Narita handles about 256,000 flights per year. We also recognize the necessity of building a Terminal 4 in the future.

When both upgrades are completed, the annual capacity will rise to 500,000 flights, carrying 75 million passengers. The hourly flight capacity will also rise to 98 from the 68 now. The ratio of LCCs will likely exceed 50 percent and airport workers will grow to 70,000 from more than 40,000 currently — the equivalent of adding one more airport.

  • What is the impact of Japan’s tightened export controls on South Korea?

(Initially,) we saw a much larger increase in South Korean flights in the first half of this fiscal year up until July than we anticipated last fiscal year.

Many flights have been canceled after the incident, but we don’t know if we’ll see a decline in flights this fiscal year after the robust growth in the first half.

  • Could you explain the One ID system that Narita is launching next spring?

It’s a facial recognition technology-based system. Once passengers have their faces and passports scanned at self check-in kiosks, they don’t have to show their passports and boarding passes for dropping off baggage, passing safety inspections and boarding gates. Passengers can have more time to enjoy our airport before boarding — including shopping — so it’s a win-win situation. In the mid- to long-term, we can also reduce our staff for checking identification, so it’s a plus for airlines and all other parties.

  • Once you register with One ID, can you avoid repeating the process when you fly at a later date?

Technically that’s possible, but in view of the Personal Information Protection Act, that data will be erased by the end of the day so it cannot be used at a later date.

In the future — One ID, developed by NEC, is a highly versatile system — could be used at hotels or hospitals near Narita or allow shopping at stores without presenting money.

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