Japan may be about to wave goodbye to convention as it tackles the problem of airport congestion.

Michael Fitzpatrick/TOKYO

USER-FRIENDLY is not a term you could use to describe New Tokyo International Airport at Narita. It is a Y21,650 ($210) taxi ride away from Tokyo, is inconvenient for connections between international and domestic flights, has a crippling airport tax and is always overcrowded. It is clear to anyone who has used the two congested Tokyo airports (the other is at Haneda) that the city is in urgent need of a new airport, especially now that the tentative idea of moving the seat of Japanese Government to another city has been rejected.

Where should such an airport be located? There are feasible sites around Tokyo Bay, but, because of the history of conflict between landowners and airport developers in Japan, the authorities have, until recently, kept the locations of these potential sites secret.

Land use is an emotive issue in Japan, and is best exemplified by the plot of tree-lined farmland, which sat like a recalcitrant island in the middle of the Terminal 2 extension to Narita Airport. This symbol of defiance, where airport opponents held a blossom-viewing party in the spring of 1993, is now gone - its sale to the airport in the summer of 1995 having signaled the end of an often violent struggle between locals and the authorities which lasted for 30 years.

It is not surprising therefore, that this time the Japanese transport ministry, is pursuing a policy of "symbiosis with local people" and, perhaps because Tokyo residents are so resolutely opposed to any symbiosis with an airport, an offshore project now seems the safest bet.


The logical choice would have been to follow the Kansai Airport example. Kansai, built on reclaimed land, an island off Osaka, and opened in 1995, has sunk by 10m (33ft), however, and requires extra expenditure to shore it up. Because of that, the transport ministry is seriously considering a floating airport for Tokyo, despite the problems associated with such a project, and is now supporting an agency to look into its feasibility.

The Tokyo-based agency, the Technical Research Association of Mega-Float, has been assembled by a conglomerate of Japanese shipbuilders and steel makers, each bidding to design and construct the floating platform.

Agency director Eichi Isobe says: "With limited land, the utilisation of sea space has been a major characteristic in the development of the Japanese economy." The agency's task, he says, is to investigate the basic technology needed to realise an ultra-large floating platform to support two runways and airport buildings. There are now 30 plans for the floating platform with 30 different positions.

The fantastic nature of the concept raises questions. For example, the danger to a floating airport, if it were hit by a tsunami, (a tidal wave following an earthquake at sea), is dismissed by Isobe. Tsunamis merely raise the sea level, like a huge swell and the airport would gently rise and fall in its wake, he says.

The biggest problem facing a floating platform, Isobe explains, is the flexibility of its moorings. He says that there are difficulties, but the research indicates that they are near to finding a solution. By 1997, the agency hopes to have a 300 x 60m experimental platform at sea for further tests, at a cost of '7.5 billion.

As for transport between land and the airport, he says: "A tunnel is the safest choice. Kansai has a bridge, but I do not consider this the safest method for a floating structure. A short bridge attached to reclaimed land, and from there a tunnel to the mainland, would fit the bill."

At one time a floating structure had been considered for Kansai, but was ditched in favour of land reclamation. Because of the floater plans for Kansai, Japan is considered to be ahead in the field of floating technology, with the USA not far behind - plans are afoot for a floating airport at San Diego.

The airport suggested by Mega-Float would be protected from waves by breakwaters, with the main airport structure built from simple box floats and located 2km (1nm) off shore. Construction estimates for the platform alone are around $19 billion, which, says the agency, is inexpensive compared to reclamation work. Other benefits Isobe, which cites are a short construction period, safety from earthquakes and less damage to the environment.

A serious problem, yet to be overcome, is the age-old battle with corrosive sea water. One Japanese steel company involved in Mega-Float claims that, with the use of new corrosion-resistant materials, the structure could be maintained for at least 100 years.

The extensive use of steel brings another headache - how to neutralise iron's effect on the operation of air-traffic control equipment. The agency is working on the problem, but has not yet come up with a solution.

Storms in Tokyo Bay are not seen as a problem. The Mega-Float would be secured to the sea bed by cables and, if it were to be threatened by a typhoon, common in Tokyo after the summer, the airport would simply shut down.

Given the untested nature of the floater scheme, the floating airport might just remain another radical idea, but that the Government is considering such a radical solution to such an urgent transport problem indicates just how pressing the need for a new airport is, and how limited are Tokyo's options.

Kazashige Watanabe, deputy director of the planning division at Japan's Ministry of Transport is aware of the urgency, but at the same time wants to see more careful consideration given to any decisions. "The Mega-Float plan is just one of the options. The ministry is giving careful thought to a variety of ideas, including that of building Tokyo's third airport on reclaimed land," he says.

More space may be created at ground level, but is there room in the skies? "It may be crowded air space around Tokyo Bay, but studies indicate that another flight corridor could be created," Watanabe says.


Tokyo-based pilot Kazuhiko Okamoto, does not agree, saying: "The topography of Tokyo Bay and its crowded environs already make flying conditions in the region very difficult. I can see no way of creating any new corridors without exposing millions to noise pollution or endangering the lives of passengers and crews."

Before tackling the needs of the 21st century, some of Tokyo's more immediate air-traffic problems need to be addressed. Even conservative ministry predictions say that, by 2000, Tokyo will need a way of alleviating the already heavy airport traffic.

Expansion of Tokyo's more central Haneda Airport started in 1984 at a cost of Y1.15 trillion. The number of passengers is expected, to increase to 64.6 million in 2015 from just under, 40 million in 1993.

Adding three more runways, the ministry says, will meet the predicted needs of the Tokyo metropolitan area. A second runway at Haneda is due for completion in 1996, but any further increases face opposition because they will mean added noise pollution and necessitate the opening of an unpopular corridor above some of the most populous wards in Tokyo.

As Haneda deals almost exclusively with domestic flights, there is still an unsatisfied demand for more international flights into Tokyo. It would appear that the best that Tokyo can do in the short term is concentrate on its domestic needs. This brings Tokyo into conflict with local governments, which would be opposed to the third airport if it was restricted to local flights.

"There is a five-year plan, but it is concerned with domestic demand," says Watanabe. "The international needs will be attended to at a later date. Priority goes to relieving domestic pressure," he adds.

One Tokyo-based pilot says: "The authorities really have to deal with the domestic problem first, as domestic traffic is set to increase massively in the next decade. Capacity is already fit to burst, at 74 million passengers now, and is expected to increase to 92 million in 2000. Even the completion of the third runway at Haneda will not be enough to lighten the load."

It is looking more likely that any new airport, floating or otherwise, will be used to soak up domestic demand, even at the cost of losing business to other Asian nations. Tokyo has said that any new airport will be used to ease domestic flight traffic in the Tokyo area. Nothing has been said of the increase in demand for more international flights to Tokyo. If Watanabe and his colleagues at the transport ministry are concerned about the threat of the new Government-sponsored hub airports now under way in Hong Kong, Seoul and Singapore, which threaten to steal a greater share of Tokyo's international business, they are not showing it.

If signals from Tokyo on the purpose and type of any new airport are mixed and uncommittal, then at least the Government seems firm on the issue of airport finance and is willing to back the scheme with its own money.

Now that plans to move the capital have finally been squashed by a recent vote in the Diet, the Japanese Government feels confident enough to pledge '200 billion to feasibility reports for construction of the third airport in the Tokyo area. That is from the '3 trillion for overall development of Japan's airports over the next five years.

Some Japanese newspapers have reported a budget of Y4 trillion, but Watanabe says that it will remain around '3 trillion - the current five-year airport programmes budget. The projects include a Y600 billion runway at Kansai International.

The view is that the mammoth cost of the new airport will be borne by the Government from fiscal funds, unlike the costs of Kansai and other international airports in Japan, which were funded privately. This is justified, the Government says, because any floating or reclaimed-land airport will represent an addition to national territory. Appropriations for airport construction account for only 1.4% of the state's public-works budget, so many say that it is time that the Government stepped in to ease the burden on the airport users.

The number of international flights to Kansai Airport has been half that for which it hoped, mainly because of the high landing fees imposed to pay for the steep cost of the airport. Government money will negate the need for high landing fees, argues the transport ministry. How Tokyo would deal with a further increase in traffic as ticket prices fall is open to question.


Transport minister Takeo Hiranuma has said that he would bring down Tokyo's sky-high landing fees - which are the most expensive in the world. The cost of building the new Tokyo airport, he adds, will be reflected in the landing fees, but "some" money will also come from central government.

Pressure is on the Government to increase expenditure on airport projects. Whether the minister will succeed in attaining a higher budget for his ambitions is another matter. Japanese cabinet meetings are notorious for fights among ministers when budget allocations are reviewed.

Key to the studies for the new airport is the pinpointing of the site. Tokyo has still yet to make any final decisions on the site of the new airport and may possibly wait until the last minute to reveal its plans.

After painstaking consensus, however, the Council for Civil Aviation has narrowed the choice of site to nine places around Tokyo Bay. Unofficially, the list has been shortened to three sites. The most likely candidate is in the middle of Tokyo Bay, adjacent to Kanazawa, not far from Yokohama and Haneda, and where the sea is only 12-15m deep.

Now that a final decision draws closer, the interest in plans for a new Tokyo airport will heighten. Watanabe says that foreign interests will be invited to be involved in studies for the Mega-Float project and bid for any construction work. If the Mega-Float project is put into operation and succeeds, then passengers and airlines can, perhaps, at last look forward to using a airport worthy of Tokyo's reputation as the capital of the future.

Source: Flight International