Japan has 98 airports. The transport ministry’s recent survey of 72 of them indicates that the economic viability of many airports is low. Unless local governments and concerned businesses make serious efforts to attract more passengers, some airports may be forced to close.

The survey compared the actual number of passengers who used the 72 airports in fiscal 2008 with passenger-number forecasts. The actual number exceeded the forecast at only eight airports — Naha, Kumamoto, Nagasaki, Okayama, Nagoya, Haneda, Shonai (Yamagata Prefecture) and Asahikawa (Hokkaido). At about half of the 72 airports, actual use was less than 50 percent of what was forecast.

On March 11, Ibaraki airport opened as the nation’s 98th airport. Some ¥22 billion was spent to build the airport, which has a 2,700-meter runway. The chance of the actual passenger total of the airport exceeding the forecast amount is almost nil, as it connects only to Seoul, with one round-trip service a day. From April 16, it will also offer a once-daily round-trip service to Kobe.

Major airlines have shied away from Ibaraki, fearing a lack of passengers. The airport, about 80 km from Tokyo, is touted as the third for the capital, but access to it is hardly convenient.

The previous government’s airport construction plan is to blame for the glut of poorly performing airports. It approved construction of airports based on unreliable forecast data about the growth of gross domestic product and population growth. Clearly, this forecasting method must be changed.

A large part of airports’ construction costs were covered by subsidies from a special account that includes landing fees and fuel tax paid by airlines. Japan Airlines paid as much as ¥170 billion a year for these charges — one reason for its bankruptcy. As transport minister Seiji Maehara said, a drastic review of how this account is managed is inevitable. Local governments in areas with poorly performing airports should study successful examples, which have benefited from measures such as inviting firms to establish factories in nearby areas, developing tourism resources and providing ample free-of-charge parking.

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