With the opening of Central Japan International Airport (Chubu airport) last week, Japan’s aviation industry entered a new age. The new terminal will serve as a gateway to the 2005 World Exposition (Aichi Expo), which opens next month. Chubu airport is a new symbol of Nagoya, a vigorous commercial and industrial region that is home to many of Japan’s representative companies, including Toyota Motor Corp.

The sobering thought is that Chubu airport, along with Narita and Kansai airports, is beset by problems that, according to analysts, stem largely from the lack of consistency and strategy that has bedeviled the nation’s aviation policy. The primary challenge for Chubu — and for Narita and Kansai, for that matter — is to provide customer satisfaction by dint of ingenuity and resourcefulness.

Chubu airport is a 24-hour airport built on a reclaimed land in Ise Bay, off Tokoname City, Aichi Prefecture. It is operated by a company that is 50 percent owned by private interests and the rest by the central and local governments. The new airport, like a compact car, is said to have the minimum necessary facilities, including a 3,500-meter runway.

The Chubu airport project is an impressive example of cost reduction. The total cost has been slashed to 643 billion yen, down 125 billion yen from an initial estimate. Extremely low interest rates certainly have helped. More importantly, the airport company and others have tried hard to cut costs a la Toyota Motor, which is widely known for its kaizen (improvement) system for reducing costs and raising efficiency.

One result of this is a relatively low landing fee — 656,000 yen for jumbo jets. That’s about 20 percent lower than at Kansai and about 30 percent lower that at Narita, whose landing fees are said to be highest in the world. Such a drastic cut would have been impossible had the project been carried out under direct government control.

For passengers and visitors, Chubu airport offers a number of advantages. First, it is more convenient to use, not only because the gates for international and domestic flights are on the same floor but also because the time needed to make connections is relatively short. Chubu, which provides access to 24 cities in Japan, has a more extensive network of domestic routes than Kansai and Narita. A person departing from Sendai airport, for example, early in the morning can leave for Paris from Chubu before noon.

Moreover, the terminal building features a dazzling array of commercial facilities, including Oriental and Western-style malls, a huge public bath that commands a panoramic view, and a wedding hall. Parts of the terminal appear to be designed like a theme park as a way of generating more revenue.

Chubu airport also has its disadvantages: One is that, for now at least, it offers a limited number of international flights — less than 300 a week. That’s roughly 20 percent of the flights at Narita and 40 percent of those at Kansai. Most of the flights from Chubu are bound for China and other Asian countries. As a hub airport, Chubu will need to run more international routes to the United States and Europe.

The airport will also need further investment if it is to remain a permanent tourist spot, particularly for people in the Chubu region. Attractive tourism routes should be developed from the airport to surrounding areas, including Ise-Shima, Nara and Kyoto. This will require business cooperation with travel agencies and other airlines.

Kansai airport, located not far from Chubu airport, may be adversely affected in terms of revenue. For one thing, much of the freight now going to Kansai from the Chubu region — such as car parts — is likely to move to Chubu airport from now on. As a countermeasure, Kansai is reportedly considering cutting its landing fees drastically. That won’t be easy, given its current project to build a second runway and the pressing need to reform its financial structure.

Narita airport, in Chiba Prefecture, has its own problems. As the largest of Japan’s international airports, it is used by 31 million people a year — nearly three times the number projected for Chubu airport. However, Narita continues to have difficulty extending its short provisional runway because of objections from adjacent landowners.

Meanwhile, Haneda airport in Tokyo will start using a fourth runaway in 2009 if its expansion project is completed on schedule. As a result, the number of its domestic routes will likely increase significantly. Haneda also plans to serve international flights in Asia. That will likely put it in competition with Chubu airport. Chubu would do well to start preparing for that competition, given its heavy tilt toward Asia.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.