Aviation in Japan is experiencing tectonic shifts in the market. Geoff Tudor and Graham Newton report
Japan, aviation

Project Sky Canvas will decorate the sky with shooting stars as the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo gets underway. A micro-satellite in orbit will fire tiny particles into the atmosphere that can be directed at will. As they fall to Earth they burn up, becoming shooting stars visible in a 200km radius. 

Japan’s gaze needs to be turned upward. The benefits of aviation — in Japan, air travel supports more than one million jobs and close to $83 billion in GDP — have been stifled by high costs and a constrained operating environment. The economy continues to stumble, made worse by the appreciation of the yen.

But new airport projects, a reinvention of airspace surrounding Tokyo, and fresh entrants could all make their mark. Airlines may finally have an opportunity to deliver all that they promise.

Three-hour window

‘The Future of Haneda Airport’ plan has reached its halfway point but there is still much to do to improve international competitiveness. Tokyo’s two airports — Haneda (near the city center) and Narita (in neighboring Chiba prefecture) — do not together serve as many international destinations as other major airports in the Asia region.

Seoul’s Gimpo and Incheon together serve 131 international cities compared with the Tokyo pair’s 92, for example.

Between 1978 and 2010, Haneda was used almost exclusively for domestic flights. But an international scheduled service has now restarted and demand has grown rapidly. To serve that demand, the Japan Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB) will use Haneda’s existing four runways to route aircraft over parts of the densely-populated Tokyo Metropolitan area during a three-hour window in late afternoon.

In 2015, The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT) launched a two-phase process to explain the plan and the necessity for its implementation to representatives of local cities and townships within the areas likely to be affected by overflights. Further discussion and briefings in 2016, to strengthen support for the new measures, have produced no significant objections.

In the next two years (2017–19), there should be tangible development of the capacity expansion policy, leading up to the implementation of the plan by 2020. This will accommodate an extra 39,000 international flight movements, bringing the annual total to 486,000 from the present 447,000.

Invisible curtain

Although it is not included in the plans directly, the sumo wrestler in the room is the huge block of Japanese airspace controlled by the US Air Force’s Yokota air base, 60km northwest of Haneda. This airspace covers areas over metropolitan and Greater Tokyo as well as eight prefectures. 

Military airspace covers an area up to an altitude of 7,000m at its northern edge and from about 2,450m to 4,880m in its southern boundary over Tokyo. Like an enormous yet invisible curtain, it forces flights bound for western Japan and Korea to make detours around Tokyo Bay so that they gain enough height to fly above the Yokota control zone.

For years, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government has been demanding the return of this airspace to Japanese authority, but to no avail.

The MLIT Haneda plan does not propose major changes to the current airspace architecture involving Yokota.

There is, however, a lot of work being done in air traffic management. The Collaborative Actions for Renovation of Air Traffic Systems (CARATS) program is a major overhaul, along the lines of SESAR and NextGen. By 2025, CARATS aims to double capacity in congested airspace and cut emissions 10% per flight.

“In the long run, Tokyo will need more runways — a fifth at Haneda or a third at Narita,” says Yoshiharu Ueki, President of Japan Airlines. In the short run, airspace must be adapted to accommodate the increase in traffic.

Traditional experience

Narita is consulting with the relevant parties for construction of a new runway, says Hideharu Miyamoto, Director, Corporate Management and Planning at Narita Airport Corporation. Additionally, the airport is expanding hourly capacity to 72 aircraft movements; reconfiguring the high-speed exit taxiways on Runways A and B; and exploring options for the extension of the existing runway.

“We are also carefully explaining the ramifications of relaxing the restrictions on night operations to local residents,” Miyamoto reveals.

On the ground, the airport is actively pursuing IATA’s Fast Travel initiatives to give its passengers a smoother experience. And since March 2015, the Narita Transit Program has provided passengers in transit at Narita Airport with traditional Japanese hospitality and service.

“The goal is to plant in their minds a desire to return to Japan and promote tourism in the local area around Narita Airport,” says Miyamoto.

“And to further enrich the airport experience both landside and airside, a variety of exhibits and participatory activities introduce aspects of traditional Japanese culture, such as calligraphy, woodblock printing, and kimono wearing.”

Four apps — a multi-language translation app, a tourist information app, a terminal guide and flight information app, and a voice guidance app for terminal navigation — make Narita easier to use and there’s also a digital sign system that helps arriving passengers find the best means of transport to reach their destinations and how long it will take.

Airport privatization

In Osaka, VINCI Airports took over the operation of Kansai International Airport and Itami, the high-yield, downtown airport in April 2016. The 44-year concession was achieved with the cooperation of ORIX, a Japanese company that, like VINCI, took 40% of the deal with the remaining 20% of the new Kansai Airports company shared out among multiple stakeholders.

Emmanuel Menanteau, co-CEO of VINCI Airports, says the potential for growth was the key factor in bidding for the concession. “But also, we manage 35 airports worldwide and already have a presence in Asia. So, Japan made perfect sense from a company strategy point of view,” he says.

Menanteau says the aim is to create synergies between the two airports, running them as one system rather than two separate facilities as was previously the case. There have been calls for the government to shut down Itami and force domestic traffic to Kansai, especially if the Maglev train is extended from Tokyo to downtown Osaka. But it seems that is not on the agenda. Itami is extremely successful, says Menanteau, and will be renovated in time for the 2020 Olympics.

Kansai — built on an artificial island in Osaka Bay — will also be developed. There will be an extension of Terminal 2 opening soon and capacity there will eventually be doubled. At both airports, retail and security will be improved. With 35% of traffic at Kansai carried by low-cost carriers (LCC), a figure that is creeping up month-on-month, VINCI will pay particular attention to the needs of this market segment.

“One of our key strategies for the airports going forward is a complete revision of pricing,” Menanteau informs. “Part of this will be specific pricing relating to new routes and new airlines. We want to enable traffic development. Kansai is expensive due to the original cost of construction but we want to attract airlines. The first priority is to connect Kansai with Asia and, after that, we will look at other regions.”

The improvements in Osaka can’t come too soon for the airlines. Vinoop Goel, IATA’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director of Airport, Passenger, Cargo & Security Department, admits there are “high expectations” from the new operators of Kansai Airports.

“While IATA understands the government’s push for the privatization of Japanese airports to bring expertise in airport operation and management, there needs to be appropriate safeguards in place through effective serviceand economic regulation,” he says. “The objective should be to allow for investments while ensuring efficient service levels at low costs for all users. In the end, Japanese airports should provide a cost-efficient environment for airlines to operate in and to/from Japan.”

Goel stresses Kansai must make every effort to be competitive. Japan’s aviation market is mature, and therefore growing slowly, and US-Asia traffic is starting to overfly Japan.

“Kansai airport has seen a huge influx of Chinese travelers and that can allow it to lower unit costs, but it also needs to invest in facilities and new technology to ease overcrowding,” he suggests.