IN FOCUS: Low-cost carriers call for changes at Japan's airports

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Japanese airports are still getting to grips with the requirements of low-cost carriers, with high costs and red tape among issues that have cropped up over the last few months.

These issues need to be addressed and resolved if the country is serious about promoting the low-cost market segment, say several industry players.

"Flexibility is very important for us," says Miyuki Suzuki, chief executive of Jetstar Japan, which began operations out of Tokyo's Narita International Airport in July.

"The Japanese regulators and airports are still understanding how to deal with us, that we have different requirements from the full service carriers. They are learning, for example, that aircraft utilisation is far more important for us than it is for full service carriers. It is an ongoing process."

One gripe is that low-cost carriers are charged the same landing fees as full service carriers. Their higher utilisation and high passenger numbers should help them get lower fees, say low-cost carriers. Airport officials, however, say this issue needs to be studied closely.

"We have to be fair to all of the airlines and we cannot discriminate one type of airline from another," says an official from Narita airport who did not want to be named. "This can be looked into, but it is something we must be careful about. Full service carriers are still our main customers."

Safety regulations in Japan mean that airlines are not allowed to refuel their aircraft while passengers are boarding or disembarking the aircraft, leading to longer turnaround times. Japanese law also requires "wing-men" positioned on the ground to walk beside the aircraft as it taxies to its stand.

"Why do you need wing-men? It is just an additional cost," says Andrew Cowen, managing partner at Mango Aviation Partners, who helped in the start-up of All Nippon Airways' low-cost subsidiary Peach.

"And the refuelling law makes no sense at all as airports around the world allow airlines to refuel while passengers are boarding. This causes unnecessary delays for low-cost carriers, which are dependent on high aircraft utilisation. It does not help the airports either as a faster turnaround time will clear their bottlenecks as well."

Curfews at many Japanese airports are an issue for low-cost carriers as flight delays could cause the aircraft to be diverted to alternative airports, thus raising costs. Shortening curfew hours, especially at Narita, would increase the number of slots and help make operations more efficient, say the officials.

Japan has 93 commercial airports and almost all are loss-making, but some could get around this by offering attractive fees to low-cost airlines, says Cowen. They could also give discounts to low-cost carriers who either base their aircraft there or park them overnight, says Cowen.

There are signs, however, that airports are trying to help low-cost carriers. Narita has announced that it will build a terminal for budget carriers that will begin operations in 2015, while Osaka Kansai's low-cost terminal will be ready in 2013.

"These are very good developments for us," says Suzuki. "For example, we have been asked to submit a report to Narita about what we would like from the low-cost terminal and we have given them a lot of suggestions. We are telling them that they should involve us in the early design stages, even in areas such as figuring out how far away from the airport the aircraft should be parked."