Judging from the first round, access to Tokyo's Narita International airport will dominate discussions when Japanese and US officials meet in Washington DC on 21 February for their second round of new bilateral talks.

As agreed in 1998, these talks are supposed to focus on "further liberalisation", but the two sides are so far apart philosophically that the only issues worth discussing are practical ones such as slots at Narita. After the first round of talks, US calls for "open skies" are already off the table.

Japan's transport ministry has announced that it will not increase the 370 slots on Narita's main runway. A few slots may open up when more charters switch to Tokyo's Haneda airport, but attention is focused mainly on the 176 new slots that will become available when Narita's second runway opens. Because that runway, slated for May next year, will be shorter, the ministry is proposing to limit flights to a radius of 1,500km (1,000 miles). Narita was originally planned to have three runways, but this looks unlikely following the years of dispute over the second.

Japan wants to reserve a third of these new slots for domestic feeder flights. Currently, nearly all overseas passengers connecting to or from domestic flights must make the time-consuming transfer between Narita and Haneda airports.

According to US sources close to the talks, Japan is asking the US airlines to switch some of their intra-Asia flights to the new runway. The transport ministry says the Americans are using very valuable slots "wastefully". European carriers in particular have complained about a lack of access for third and fourth freedoms, while US carriers are allowed a number of fifth freedom flights from Narita.

The biggest overall issue is the US share of Narita slots. US carriers now hold an estimated 34%. Compared with other international gateways, the Japanese see this as a major imbalance. Tokyo complains it is hard pressed to explain to other countries how this is not some form of special treatment for the Americans.

Source: Airline Business