Where there's a will, there's a way. Despite a nine year freeze on more takeoffs and landings at Tokyo/Narita airport, Japan's Ministry of Transport (MOT) seems to have found a way to accommodate more prime time flights by US carriers. But then, faced with the obligation to make the new US-Japan bilateral work, it had to. Yet, by apparently favouring the Americans over 47 other countries, the MOT has left everyone worried about how it will distribute new slots when a second runway opens in less than three years' time.

The stakes are high. Tokyo/Narita is one of the world's most coveted airports, partly because it has been congested for so long and partly because it is such a key destination. Narita is Asia's third busiest airport and is used by 57 per cent of all passengers entering or leaving Japan.

'Without a Tokyo hub you're in deep trouble,' says Michael Roach, a San Francisco aviation consultant. 'Seoul's geography is fine,' Roach says, 'but it still remains a fact that the huge local markets are Tokyo. It's like trying to compete with O'Hare in Milwaukee.'

Narita's second runway, slated to open by March 2001, will allow up to 260 more takeoffs and landings each day - 72 per cent more than now - but not nearly enough to satisfy everyone. The US, whose carriers already controls 34 per cent of Narita's slots, is entitled under the pact to add daily flights by another airline next June with another due six months later. The Europeans, who have only one fifth of the slots of the Americans, feel they are being left out.

Conversely, Japanese airlines claim foreigners control far too many of Narita's slots. Unless All Nippon Airways finds more, its new status as an incumbent under the US-Japan bilateral will remain largely symbolic. Isao Kaneko, JAL's new president, insists that when the new runway opens the overall percentage of slots used by Japanese carriers will have to be addressed. Finally, a number of Japanese cities are clamouring for domestic links to Narita. Passengers from all but a few local cities must make the tortuous transfer from Haneda, Tokyo's domestic airport, to Narita. In light of all these conflicting claims on a limited resource, inevitably when new slots are awarded no one will gain all they want and Narita will instantly be saturated again.

Tension is high over what rules the MOT will apply in distributing new slots. Japan says it follows Iata's slot allocation guidelines. But its recent accommodation for US carriers, whereby more US slots are used at prime times, prompted Ralph Wilkinson, counsellor for the European Union in Tokyo, to note, 'They prefer an ad hoc approach.'

That is the kind of free-for-all most airlines want to avoid. UK Prime Minister Tony Blair has voiced such concerns in three separate meetings with Japan's Prime Minister Hashimoto. The Europeans especially want assurances that the MOT will follow clear, open, and fair procedures on Narita's new slots.

Europe's campaign started a year ago when it sent a delegation of airport and traffic control officials from London/Gatwick to meet with their counterparts at Narita. The Gatwick mission offered a number of suggestions on ways to cut noise and squeeze more slots out of the current runway.

One suggestion MOT agreed to adopt was a use-it-or-lose-it rule, aimed primarily at Federal Express, which took effect last November. It was common knowledge that FedEx had up to 42 early morning and late night slots which were not regularly used. The MOT plans to monitor slot use and may reallocate both FedEx's and other carriers' unused slots.

But negotiators reached a new US-Japan accord first which gave American, Continental, and Delta Air Lines new daily flights to Tokyo/Narita. The bilateral itself made no guarantees about slots and Japanese officials deny any secret deal on that subject. Regardless of whether there was a written agreement, Japan has found ways to accommodate these new US flights. Norifumi Ide, director of the MOT's international air transport division, says only: 'For the time being there is no feasibility to increase scheduled flights without consent from the local communities. The number of slots is limited by noise abatement measures.' But he adds that local communities have agreed to 10 more slots per day for extra-section, charter, and other non-scheduled flights. Talks are taking place with Narita residents to turn more of these charter slots into scheduled ones.

Other sources claim Japan's air traffic controllers union has agreed with Narita's airport authority, effective 1 May, to raise the hourly slot limits from 28 to 30, the three hour limit from 75 to 79, and the daily limit from 360 to 370 slots. The fact that American, Continental, and Delta Air Lines each began daily Narita flights at prime times during May and June, has fuelled fears of preferential treatment.

To avoid charges that slots were effectively created for them, the US carriers have insisted they are using slots sold or leased to them by FedEx. Ide expresses MOT's policy on such transfers: 'the established rule has been applied since the 1980s that routes can be transferred from one air carrier to another air carrier when both are from the same country'. Hence, Ide insists his ministry did not redistribute slots or approve the transfer. 'The Americans did that among themselves.' He cites as examples in Japan, Air France's transfer of slots to another French carrier, and the slots British Airways gave to Virgin Atlantic.

British diplomats take issue with this, insisting that British Airways never simply 'gave' slots to Virgin Atlantic. The British transport secretary ordered BA to transfer slots to Virgin as part of a Tokyo route award for Virgin designed to promote competition. Unlike the slots which FedEx transferred to other US carriers, British officials say the slots which BA was ordered to transfer were already in use.

Even if the US carriers are using FedEx slots, how could they move them from one time of day to another? Ide points to the practice by airlines of swapping slots or using each other's in the event of a cancellation. 'Even in the busy afternoon hours, the airline of another country may have an extra section from time to time.' That might explain the occasional extra prime time flight, but it does not fully explain how three US carriers can operate a consistent prime time schedule for seven days of the week. Ide quickly adds, 'I must confess I am not an expert in this field.'

'It's all very puzzling,' says one European official. Equally puzzling is that the Japanese airlines, which have been outspoken in the past about US control of too many slots, are uncharacteristically quiet about the apparent increase in the number of US slots being used. One explanation offered by the EU's Wilkinson is that the Japanese airlines 'don't raise their voices too loudly' against the MOT, since aviation is so closely regulated in Japan. Another is that the Japanese carriers, while dismayed at more US prime time slots, hope the vagaries of the current system will work to their benefit when Narita's second runway opens or more scheduled slots become available.

Those who seek change appear to be using the accommodation of US requirements as a reason to press for change. The Europeans have formally complained about Japan's 'discriminatory redistribution' of Narita slots and threatened possible sanctions against Japan. Says one European official, 'we decided not to make a bigger fuss over the current issue. It is fairly clear we wouldn't change anything. We are more interested in changing the slot allocation policy before the second runway opens at Narita.'

Changing that policy mostly is a job for diplomats. 'We're dealing with something involving Japan's sovereignty. They have the ability to change the rules if they want. But they also have the right to mismanage and make a mess of it,' says one.

With the US relying on its bilateral rights and the Japanese carriers demanding more slots as a matter of national interest, the pressure for adopting slot guidelines comes mainly from Europe. A steady stream of European officials have been visiting Tokyo to discuss this and Prime Minister Hashimoto hears about it whenever he sets foot in Europe. How much difference the talking will make remains to be seen. So far, one European diplomat concedes, 'We have made no progress.'

The MOT is avoiding commitment on nearly all issues. Ide hesitates over how many new slots will be available when the second runway opens, as that depends on flight patterns and noise abatement plans which he says must be negotiated with local communities. He cannot say how far in advance of the new runway's opening Japan will award the new slots, whether it will award all of them at once or reserve some for domestic sectors, or what procedure the MOT will apply in distributing them. Says Ide: 'We have no idea at this point in time.'

One sign of encouragement is that Japan has started to review its system for distributing domestic slots. MOT's award of domestic slots at Tokyo/ Haneda last year and more recently at Osaka/Itami raised howls of protest from local startups who felt they deserved more. According to Japanese carriers, the MOT's system for distributing domestic slots is as opaque as its international one.

The MOT has agreed to calls for an ad hoc panel to study domestic slot allocations and suggest changes in the current system, which uses a committee of 'wise men.' The panel was set up by the MOT's advisory transport policy council in mid-May. 'This is most interesting,' says Wilkinson, 'because here is a recognition that domestic slot allocation needs more transparency.' The next question to be asked is 'will this become a precedent for international?' he adds.

Source: Airline Business