Photo/IllutrationThe Asahi Shimbun

  • Photo/Illustraion
  • Photo/Illustraion

Narita Airport, Japan's primary and busiest air hub, is to get a third runway and will expand its operating hours to meet surging demand for flights in and out of Japan.

The decision, announced March 13, is also aimed at fending off competition from other airports in Asia, namely South Korea, China and Singapore.

It will mark the first extension of operating hours since the airport opened in Narita, Chiba Prefecture, in 1978.

Arrival and departure slots at Narita Airport, now at 300,000, will increase to 460,000 when the new C Runway is completed around 2028, according to airport operator Narita International Airport Corp. (NAA).

The decision was made during a meeting of a “council of four parties” comprising the central government, the NAA, the Chiba prefectural government and nine municipal authorities.

Although the council is a voluntary organization, important issues concerning the airport require its consent.

Narita Airport currently has two runways--the 4,000-meter-long A Runway and 2,500-meter-long B Runway.

The C Runway will be 3,500 meters long and constructed in parallel with the other two runways.

In addition, the B Runway will be extended by 1,000 meters to accommodate large aircraft.

After the completion of the C Runway, the airport will expand its operating times from the current 17 hours (6 a.m. to 11 p.m., in principle) to 19 and a half hours (5 a.m. to 12:30 a.m., in principle).

LOCAL REVITALIZATION

“Strengthening the functions of the airport is indispensable for further development of our country, as well as for local areas," NAA President Makoto Natsume told a news conference March 13, calling it a "historic day" for the airport that lies about 60 kilometers from central Tokyo.

The decision to build a new international airport outside Tokyo was decided in a Cabinet meeting in 1966. Construction in the Sanrizuka district of Narita met fierce opposition from local farmers who were deprived of farmland, as well as activists and others.

Opponents of the airport still hold protest gatherings.

The NAA drew up its airport expansion plan in September 2016. It took 18 months for the council of four parties to approve the project.

A "speedy settlement” was possible because local municipalities plagued by a population drain viewed the plan as a powerful card for local revitalization.

They are anticipating an increase in grants from the NAA and an economic bonanza with the rise in airport users.

The planned site for the C Runway is in Shibayama, whose town government got on board early on in the discussions with the Narita city government.

On the other hand, residents of Yokoshibahikari, a town adjacent to Shibayama, initially expressed opposition to the plan, citing an expected increase in the roar of noise from aircraft.

However, Yokoshibahikari caved in on March 12.

“We worried that we will be left behind from local revitalization. It was a painful choice that was made after repeated reflection,” said Yokoshibahikari Mayor Haruhiko Sato.

FOREIGN COMPETITION

Due to the importance of Haneda and Narita airports as major hubs for the Tokyo metropolitan area, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has increased arrival and departure slots at both facilities.

The total number of slots at the two airports has risen from 520,000 in 2010 to 750,000, mainly due to the construction of a fourth runway at Haneda Airport in Tokyo Bay and the establishment of a terminal for low-cost carriers (LCC) at Narita Airport.

The transport ministry plans to increase the slots further to 830,000 by 2020 after reviewing flight routes from and to Haneda Airport. For comparison, the number of slots at airports serving New York and London exceed 1 million.

“If the third runway (at Narita Airport) is completed, the total number of slots (at Haneda and Narita) should reach around 1 million," said a ministry official. "That will lead to greater competitiveness of the airports and acceptance of 60 million foreign visitors annually.”

Competition with airports elsewhere in Asia is becoming more intense.

Incheon Airport in South Korea, Changi Airport in Singapore and some facilities in China have also built more runways and increased slots in recent years. Moreover, those facilities operate around the clock.

Narita Airport initially was built for international flights while Haneda Airport served domestic routes. But in 2010, Haneda began to accept international flights. Since then, Haneda's traffic from overseas has increased steadily.

The ministry also is weighing the idea of using Narita as a connection point for international flights and as a stronghold for LCC and cargo transportation, while utilizing Haneda as a stronghold that connects international and domestic flights.

The increase in the number of slots at the two airports raises the possibility that international flights could shift to Haneda, which operates 24/7.

“Now is not the time for Japanese airports to be competing among themselves. Airports overseas are also strengthening their functions,” said aviation analyst Kazuki Sugiura.

“Unless Haneda and Narita expand their functions, foreign airlines will stop using Japanese airports,” he added.

(This article was written by Kazuhisa Kurokawa, Yoshifumi Fukuda and Hideaki Ishiyama.)