National

Flying low: The battle over Tokyo’s airspace

Haneda Airport’s new flight paths commence despite concerns from aviation experts and public opposition

by Osamu Tsukimori

Staff writer

Life will instantly become a lot noisier for an estimated 1 million residents of Tokyo from Sunday.

New flight paths for aircraft approaching Haneda Airport formally take effect this weekend, with up to 44 planes per hour being given clearance to fly over some of Tokyo’s busiest neighborhoods — Shinjuku, Shibuya and Shinagawa — over a period of three hours in the afternoon on days in which the wind is blowing from the south.

Should such southerlies arrive on Sunday, commercial flights will finally be given the green light to officially pass over central Tokyo when approaching landing strips at Haneda Airport for the first time. Until now, Japan’s largest airport in terms of passenger capacity has relied on routes over Tokyo Bay for landings since it started operations in 1931.

According to the transport ministry, the new landing corridors were opened so the number of arrivals and departures at the airport could be increased to 90 an hour, from 80 prior to this weekend, as Tokyo attempts to keep up with growing demand.

While obvious concerns have been raised about the increased noise pollution the new paths create, others have questioned the aerodynamic safety of the new approach. Not surprisingly, the issues are related.

An airplane flies over central Tokyo in a test of the new flight paths for international passenger aircraft bound for Haneda Airport in February. | KYODO
An airplane flies over central Tokyo in a test of the new flight paths for international passenger aircraft bound for Haneda Airport in February. | KYODO

The transport ministry had initially planned to allow aircraft to approach the landing strips via the new corridors over Tokyo at 3 degrees, which is the de facto global standard.

In an attempt to reduce noise pollution, however, the ministry subsequently decided to instruct pilots to approach the runway at 3.45 degrees, although 3 degrees would be permitted in the event of rough weather.

Aviation industry organizations such as the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations were quick to criticize the decision.

Hiroshi Sugie, a former Japan Airlines pilot, says no other sizable international airport in the world has adopted such a steep approach.

Sugie says pilots will likely see Haneda Airport as one of the most difficult airports in the world to land at, with the steep descent making it difficult to reduce the aircraft’s speed upon landing and increasing the risk of a tail strike, where the back of the plane touches the tarmac.

Flight restrictions

The steep approach stems from the fact that one of the two new landing corridors over Tokyo traverses the airspace over Yokota Air Base.

The United States has asked all commercial aircraft to fly at a higher altitude over Nakano Ward to maintain an adequate vertical distance between the U.S. military aircraft and civilian jets, sources say, citing an internal document of a Japanese airline.

The Yokota airspace is a vast area controlled by the U.S. military that spans hundreds of kilometers north to south and east to west in Tokyo and nine other prefectures.

The new flight path over central Tokyo to runway C on the eastern side of the airport at Haneda does not traverse the Yokota airspace, and so it would have been theoretically possible for aircraft to adopt a 3-degree approach. However, sources say the transport ministry decided to keep both approaches the same.

When Kiwami Omura, the 61-year-old head of a group of residents opposing the new corridors, asked the transport ministry whether Yokota had requested the 3.45-degree approach in late January, the ministry declined to comment.

Kiwami Omura is the 61-year-old head of a group of residents opposing the new Haneda Airport corridors. | YOSHIAKI MIURA
Kiwami Omura is the 61-year-old head of a group of residents opposing the new Haneda Airport corridors. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

The International Civil Aviation Organization has stated that descents should not be increased above the global standard of 3 degrees solely to reduce noise.

Sugie says that one study in Japan shows that the maximum sound reduction in setting a steeper descent would be just 2 decibels or so. The transport ministry said Tuesday that about 20 percent of the surveyed sites along the new landing corridors recorded a louder noise than it had projected, while adding that around 60 percent of the sites recorded noise that was in line with its projections.

Sugie, 73, who retired in 2011 after 43 years as a pilot, helped Japan Airlines introduce a set of universal protocols for pilots to follow when landing. Applying what he describes as a “stabilized approach,” pilots are mandated to initiate go-around procedures if various conditions are not met in the final approach to the runway, which includes such readings as the rate of descent not exceeding 1,000 feet (about 305 meters) per minute.

These protocols were incorporated into the operation manual at Japan Airlines, and has since been adopted by all domestic airlines, Sugie says.

Landing headaches for pilots increase in the summer heat, when the actual altitude of the aircraft is above the indicated reading due to atmospheric pressure, subsequently making the aircraft’s angle of descent steeper. The number of flights over central Tokyo is also likely to increase because southerlies are more prevalent in summer. The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations said in a statement on Jan. 20 that descents when temperatures are close to 40 degrees Celsius “could be closer to 3.8 degrees, vastly different to any approach path most pilots have encountered.”

An airplane flies over central Tokyo in a test of the new flight paths for international passenger aircraft bound for Haneda Airport in February. | KYODO
An airplane flies over central Tokyo in a test of the new flight paths for international passenger aircraft bound for Haneda Airport in February. | KYODO

The association also warned of increased occurrences of hard landings and long landings, in addition to “more noise” that will be generated from the configuration of gears, flaps and brakes required on the final approach. What’s more, “full reverse thrust” will likely be used on all landings.

“Summer will definitely be the most dangerous period of time,” Sugie says, adding that the rate of descent could be as much as around 1,300 feet per minute.

An approach at this rate would obviously contravene an airline’s operations manual, he says.

Shota Suyama, deputy director of the transport ministry’s Tokyo area airports division, says the steep flight path does not require any special training, adding that pilots routinely descend at 3.45 degrees at airports in Wakkanai and Hiroshima in Japan and San Diego in the United States.

Sugie says such airports mostly handle small aircraft, but Suyama notes that Japan Airlines operates aircraft such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Boeing 777 at the San Diego hub.

“If the angle of the descent rises by just 0.1 degrees, it would feel much steeper for pilots,” Sugie says. “Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak airport used to be regarded as the most challenging for pilots but that was 3.1 degrees.”

Haneda Airport | KYODO
Haneda Airport | KYODO

The de facto global standard for landing is an instrument landing system that allows pilots to use autopilot to guide an aircraft to a runway under bad weather or zero visibility.

However, the transport ministry wants pilots to use an area navigation system that uses GPS to assist an aircraft to a runway in fine weather and will allow for shorter distances between aircraft compared to the instrument landing system approach, which will help to increase the number of flights.

The country’s two major carriers, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, say that pilots have felt comfortable about the safety of the 3.45-degree paths during tests of the new flight corridors in February by having a range of options at their disposal for landings. These include a constant 3.45-degree descent or initially descending at a steeper rate and leveling the approach out to the more commonly used 3 degrees as the aircraft closes in on the landing strip.

During a test flight on the new landing corridors on Feb. 2, an Air Canada flight to Haneda diverted to Narita Airport in Chiba Prefecture as it was not ready to use the area navigation system, highlighting concerns about the steep descent. However, Air Canada and several other international carriers have since made preparations to use the steep approach.

“At Frankfurt Airport, where a 3.2-degree approach is required for some flights, the landings are quite challenging,” Sugie says.

Life on the ground

The flight tests laid bare the difficult aspects of placating concern over the new corridors, specifically with regards to the noise and fears of falling debris from the aircraft.

Government data compiled during testing in February showed 81 decibels at an elementary school in Minato Ward, which is equivalent to standing on a busy street, and 94 decibels in Kawasaki, equivalent to the sound of a pachinko parlor.

Omura, leader of a group of residents opposing the new flight paths, says the impact on children is a cause for concern, as there are more than 1,400 elementary and junior high schools along the new corridors.

Commercial aircraft will start using the new corridors from Sunday despite Omura submitting a letter to the transport ministry on March 12 that calls for operations to be delayed amid concern over the steep descent by global organizations such as the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations and International Air Transport Association.

Yaeko Inoue is the secretary-general of a citizens’ group that’s aiming to gather at least 23,000 signatures from Shinagawa Ward voters to initiate a local referendum on the new Haneda Airport routes. | YOSHIAKI MIURA
Yaeko Inoue is the secretary-general of a citizens’ group that’s aiming to gather at least 23,000 signatures from Shinagawa Ward voters to initiate a local referendum on the new Haneda Airport routes. | YOSHIAKI MIURA

“The transport ministry was supposed to notify citizens in advance if there is a change in flight paths, but we heard nothing and, then, the ministry unilaterally made the change on Aug. 8 last year,” he says in an interview near Oimachi Station, where he saw a slew of aircraft fly some 300 meters above ground last month during the test flights.

Yaeko Inoue, 62, secretary-general of a citizens’ group that’s aiming to gather at least 23,000 signatures from Shinagawa Ward voters to initiate a local referendum on the new routes, says that people with visual impairments experienced difficulty navigating town during the flight tests as the sound of signals at intersections was overwhelmed by the sound of jet engines flying only a few hundred meters above ground.

“They cannot walk around without the help of a guide,” she says. “It’s the children who suffer the most as they have to grow up in this unfavorable environment for a long time. People who are sensitive to sound may panic and the demerits such as stress and other incalculable risks far outweigh the benefits. As a result, the ministry’s new plan is out of the question.”

Nationwide, an increasing number of airports have planned to beef up flights ahead of the Olympics and Paralympics. 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 31.88 million travelers visited Japan in 2019. In recent weeks, however, airlines have been drastically scaling back flights amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the transport ministry, the new flight corridors would maximize the efficiency of Haneda’s four runways and increase the number of international flights it can handle by 39,000 per year to hit 99,000 — an estimated economic windfall of ¥650 billion per year.

However, Omura says the new flight paths would add just 11,000 flights per year, or roughly 2.5 percent of Haneda’s new total annual capacity of around 490,000 flights.

The bulk of the increase is attained without using the new corridors and comes from raising the efficiency of existing flights (which could create room for the airport to accommodate an additional 13,000 flights per year) and the effect of the new flight corridor for departing flights during northerly winds that will instruct the aircraft to fly north along the Arakawa river (15,000 flights per year), he says.

Haneda Airport's new flight paths | THE JAPAN TIMES
Haneda Airport’s new flight paths | THE JAPAN TIMES

Tomoo Sunaga, who represents a group preparing to file a lawsuit to suspend the transport ministry’s new flight paths within a few months, is concerned that the new corridor will allow up to 60 aircraft per day to take off from runway B and fly directly over an oil and chemical complex in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, which is located just 10 kilometers from the airport.

“There is nowhere in the world where aircraft fly over oil and chemical complexes because it’s too dangerous,” Sunaga says. “If a part falls from an airliner, it could cause an electrical fire and lead to a conflagration of oil facilities in Kawasaki. There is also a Toshiba nuclear facility in Kawasaki near the new flight route, although decommissioning work has already commenced on the nuclear facility. It’s worth noting, however, that this decommissioning work will take a further nine years to complete. The aircraft also fly over a wild bird sanctuary soon after takeoff, so there is also a possibility of a bird strike.”

In 1970, the transport ministry issued a notice to Haneda Airport and Kawasaki City, stipulating that arriving and departing aircraft would avoid the airspace above the oil complex. Sunaga claims that the transport ministry has since broken that promise, but the ministry’s Suyama says the transport ministry revised the flight restrictions last December after consultations with Kawasaki.

Legal opposition

Sunaga says his group has a good chance of winning its lawsuit against the government because a variety of genuine alternatives to the new corridors exist.

Hideaki Kuroda, 53, who is working with Sunaga to file the lawsuit, says a number of earlier Supreme Court judgments have nullified administrative actions if the government body failed to consider any alternatives.

Tomoo Sunaga and Hideaki Kuroda represent a group preparing to file a lawsuit to suspend the transport ministry’s new flight paths over central Tokyo within a few months. YOSHIAKI MIURA | YOSHIAKI MIURA
Tomoo Sunaga and Hideaki Kuroda represent a group preparing to file a lawsuit to suspend the transport ministry’s new flight paths over central Tokyo within a few months.  | YOSHIAKI MIURA

Japan has critical inefficiencies in terms of airport traffic control, Kuroda claims, citing a number of materials to back up his case. Airports in Europe, for example, allow an aircraft to enter a runway for takeoff as soon as the preceding aircraft starts the roll down the runway for takeoff, but Kuroda says Japanese airports typically instruct aircraft to wait at least another 15 seconds before entering the runway.

Revising such protocols would raise the flight capacity at Haneda Airport by at least 5 to 10 percent, which would add more flights to the schedule than using the new corridors, Sunaga says, adding that London’s Heathrow Airport handles more flights than Haneda with two fewer runways.

“I asked officials at the transport ministry whether they had taken a research tour of airport management at Heathrow, and they replied, ‘No,’” Sunaga says. “I asked them whether they know the traffic control of other countries, and they said, ‘No.’ The last signature phrase of a senior ministry official was that ‘Haneda will do things Haneda’s way.’ Haneda and Heathrow use the same air traffic control instruments, but the way Healthrow handles the traffic control is vastly different to that of Haneda without compromising safety.”

Kuroda says that Narita Airport has two runways and handles around 256,000 flights per year.

An airplane flies near Tokyo's National Stadium in a test of the new flight paths for international passenger aircraft bound for Haneda Airport in February. | KYODO
An airplane flies near Tokyo’s National Stadium in a test of the new flight paths for international passenger aircraft bound for Haneda Airport in February. | KYODO

“In comparison, Gatwick Airport in London has only one runway but handles 280,000 departing and arriving aircraft per year,” Kuroda says.

“The government officials just want to protect their Galapagos way of flight control,” he says. “If they scrapped the new corridors in the face of the residents’ opposition, they would be embarrassed.”

Kuroda also claims that Narita Airport and some other airports in and around the greater Tokyo area collectively have more capacity than the 11,000 flights to be gained annually from the new corridors at Haneda.

“Considering the number of flight cancellations in the wake of the new coronavirus, the government does not have to rely on the new landing routes to handle the traffic,” Kuroda says.

Insurance risk

Although the outcry over the new corridors that pass over the upscale vicinities of Tokyo is expected to reverberate, the transport ministry maintains that it has imposed tough measures to curb the risk of falling debris. It has required all Japanese and non-Japanese airlines to join a mandatory co-insurance plan to cover potential damage.

Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, who has supported the new flight paths as she seeks to make the city more globally competitive, is said to be seeking re-election this year, and Haneda may become a key issue in the runup to the gubernatorial election scheduled for early July, Kuroda says.

Besides noise pollution, a number of residents are worried that the new flight paths could push land and property prices lower, claiming that a U.S. study has shown that real estate prices near three airports in California have fallen an average 27.4 percent.

Suyama maintains that its survey of three major airports (Narita, Fukuoka and Itami in Osaka) has shown no marked correlation between flight paths and nearby property prices.

However, Shuji Takeuchi, an architect and real estate analyst, says that the impact of the new routes has already been reflected to some extent in the second-hand high-rise apartment prices and that a further impact is anticipated once the new routes take effect on Sunday.

“Although the price of second-hand apartments in Shinagawa and Minato wards have risen about 30 percent in the past six years, the prices of some tower condominiums near the new routes are showing signs of plateauing or peaking,” Takeuchi says.

Coronavirus banner