Sky-high landing and navigation charges are driving airlines from key Japanese airports

Andrejz Jeziorski/SINGAPORE

Japanese "capsule" hotels which offer their guests space not much bigger than a mortuary drawer are symbolic of the overcrowding and overpricing of Tokyo and other Japanese population centres.

The lack of available space is also reflected in the cost of large construction projects such as the five-year-old Kansai International Airport, serving the central Japanese business centre of Osaka, or the two-decades-old New Tokyo International Airport at Narita.

Narita took over from Haneda as Tokyo's international hub in May 1978 and even then land was so scarce that the site chosen was about 90min by road from the city centre.

Although Narita is the primary international access point to the Japanese capital, airlines are being driven away by prohibitive airport charges - and Narita is not even the most expensive airport in Japan. The most expensive airport - and in the world - is Kansai, which took over from Itami as Osaka's international airport in September 1994.

"For many years, the fees and charges incurred by civil-aviation flights in Japan - in particular international flights - have been the most onerous in the world," says the Board of Airline Representatives in Japan (BOAR) - a group representing all Japan's international carriers. The board adds that this is also true of Category II airports such as Tokyo Haneda, Nagoya and Fukuoka.

Comparative landing charges illustrate the point. The cost of landing a Boeing 747-400 at Kansai amounts to $8,738. At Narita, the charge is $8,367. The same aircraft landing at Singapore's Changi Airport is charged $2,459. In Frankfurt, the fee is $1,575 and London Heathrow charges $559.

On top of these are Japanese airport office rents, the highest in the world, and terminal navigation fees, charged according to aircraft weight. This, says the BOAR, is "pre-eminently high" at $1,800 for a 747-400, compared with just under $900 at Frankfurt and $400 at Heathrow. Singapore does not levy such a charge.

Airlines have always complained about these fees, but the BOAR says that the high charges could be covered in the past by the "generally higher market fares" obtainable in Japan. Until Kansai opened, there was a dearth of landing slots available near Japan's major population centres and, until fairly recently, the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB) enforced compliance with its own approved and published fares. The section of the JCAB which did this has been disbanded and attempts to police the market have stopped. The result has been a fare war, which has driven pressurised yields down.

The BOAR says it would normally accept a free market for passenger ticket and airfreight prices, but airlines can no longer afford to pay "the world's highest fees and charges" because they no longer have protection from low yields. "In the changed environment, airlines find it increasingly difficult to pay the enormous cost of operating to Japan," says the board.

In the last year, every Japanese international airport has seen services reduced and cancelled by major carriers. In all, 93 weekly services have been cut to Narita, Kansai, Fukuoka, Nagoya, Sendai and Sapporo. United Airlines and Northwest Airlines cut the most services, each withdrawing 14 flights, from Kansai and Nagoya, respectively. Worst hit was Kansai, where 11 carriers cut 45 weekly services from their schedules in the past year.

Kansai Airport took eight years to build at a cost of $13 billion, in a massive land-reclamation project. The high population density in the region, with all the associated noise and safety concerns, meant that the airport had to be located on an artificial island, constructed in the 80m (260ft)-deep waters of Osaka Bay.

"As a private company, we must gain some profit and clear our debts within a certain period," says Takao Matsunami, director of international affairs at Kansai International Airport (KIAC). Based on initial calculations, Matsunami says the company should be charging over Y3,000/t ($25/t) for landing charges, although the levy is Y2,300, thanks to government support.

About two-thirds of the KIAC's ´50 billion capital comes from the Tokyo central government, about one-sixth from local government and the rest from the private sector. The company met about 30% of the cost of construction of Kansai. The rest was borrowed.

Kansai has only one runway - although another is planned to be opened in 2007. The airlines complain that this project is being undertaken "without any consensus on the need for this huge new expenditure".

The new runway is being built on even deeper water, says the BOAR, pointing out that there are several single runway airports which handle over 40 movements an hour. "In general, Japanese airports handle only 26 movements per hour," says the board, which says Japan's major airports have "considerable unutilised capacity".

Matsunami responds that, in the last fiscal year (April to March), Kansai handled 117,594 aircraft movements against a capacity of 120,000 - although this capacity has increased to 160,000 with the recent agreement of local residents to allow traffic to fly over land. By the time the second runway is ready, the airport will be operating at its capacity limit, he claims, and the second runway should boost this limit to up to 230,000 movements a year.

He adds that the new runway will "not immediately" lead to any further increase in airport charges, although these remain the subject of negotiation with the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

The airlines say that, before the opening of Kansai, they were reasonably satisfied with operating from Itami Airport, despite that airport's curfew regulations and tight slot availability. The offshore construction site for Kansai was chosen amid a storm of anti-noise protests by Itami residents, which subsided when the prospect arose that Itami might be closed. To the airlines' surprise, Itami remained open as Osaka's main domestic airport, leaving Kansai to be paid for by fewer passengers.

Work is beginning on a third airport, at Kobe. "When this opens, the extra capacity will inevitably attract away from Kansai flights, which would otherwise share the burden of paying for Kansai Airport," says BOAR.

In response to airlines' protests about landing fees in Japan, the JCAB has cut charges at all Cat II airports - except for those at Itami and Haneda - by one-third from April. This has been welcomed, but it is to be funded by a new overflight charge to be levied from 1 January on all flights passing through the Japan Flight Information Region.

Narita has been trying to solve its slot-availability problem with the construction of a second, 2,500m, runway. The project began more than 10 years ago, and over half of the runway has been built. But construction stopped in 1991 because landowners whose property lies in the way refused to sell. About 4.8ha (12 acres) of unbought land are blocking the project, including 1.7ha owned by families living in the path of the construction.

Narita opened with one 4,000m runway instead of the three originally proposed, because the Ministry of Transport had failed to consult with the affected landowners. After years of debate, the ministry has been forced to drop its March 2001 opening target for the new runway and put this back to June 2002, in time for football's World Cup.

In the meantime, the Narita airport authority says that it is pushing its capacity limits. In calender year 1998, it handled 126,534 movements, of a maximum 130,000. The airport offers 370 slots a day. In March, 364 of these were being used on average.

Alternatives to a second runway are being considered, including relocation to a more northerly site, where the airport authority has acquired most of the land necessary for a 2,400m runway.

Other options could be to expand Haneda Airport beyond the third runway project, to be completed next year. Even with this new runway, Haneda will most likely reach its capacity limits in 2008. The Narita airport authority says it is opposing any further growth of Haneda.

Another alternative would be to build a new airport in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Possible sites include offshore facilities at Sagami Bay and off Yokohama, as well as a site off Futtsu and off Kujukurihama beach in Chiba prefecture.

Sagami and Kujukurihama face the problems of deep water and their distance from Tokyo. The others will face opposition because of the risk of noise pollution. The Narita airport authority stresses that these are just ideas: no company exists to run such a project, and no budget has been allocated.

But all these ideas incur expense which could have been avoided if the Narita project had been planned properly. The cost of the ministry's mistakes may have to be met by the airlines.

With similar airport fee troubles afflicting carriers flying into Hong Kong's $20 billion Chek Lap Kok Airport - the world's third most expensive international airport (Flight International, 14-20 April), the Association of Asia-Pacific Airlines has added its concerns over high airport fees in the region.

The AAPA wants airport and aeronautical services charges reduced, or a deferral of any increases, to soften the impact on airlines of Asia's ongoing economic troubles. With hard-up airlines scarcely willing to pay through the nose for airport charges while yields continue to fall, the highest-charging airports risk shooting themselves in the foot - losing ever more airlines and reducing their own revenues.

Source: Flight International