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Narita receives A380 on its 30th anniversary. Japan prepares for Tokyo 2010 boom and beyond

  • Tokyo Narita International Airport opened on 20 May 1978;
  • Singapore Airlines today operates first A380 service to Tokyo;
  • Original 4,000 m runway to be fully operational in 2010, along with extension to second runway – opening up 80,000 new slots p/a;
  • Narita losing its gateway position ahead of its planned privatisation;
  • Government economic advisory panel to recommend increase in international slots at Haneda;
  • Japan set to embrace more liberal aviation policy.

Tokyo’s Narita International Airport celebrates  its 30th anniversary today. Since opening on 20 May 1978, the airport has handled 680 million passengers and  around 41 million tonnes of cargo.

To add to the celebrations, Singapore Airlines today operated the first A380 service to Narita – to be joined next year by Air France.

Narita opened in 1978 with one terminal and a single 4,000 m runway, but will remarkably only gain full use of that runway in a few years time, with the completion of various development works. Currently, only 3,250 m of the runway can be used by aircraft approaching from the South, due to the remains of a dismantled tower and the positioning of approach lights on a 750 m strip of the runway. The airport has now purchased the necessary land to reconfigure the approach lights and remove the tower.

A second (short) runway has also been added since the airport opened and is now being extended to 2,500 m. This project will be completed in 2010 and will boost available slots to 220,000 flights p/a. Once the airport has met a number of conditions, the two runways combined could handle up to 300,000 movements p/a. Narita continues to operate close to runway capacity with 194,000 aircraft movements over the past 12 months – three times the amount handled when the airport opened 30 years ago. Cargo traffic has grown more than five times during that period and the airport handled 2.2 million tonnes p/a last year.

Whereas the airfield capacity is stretched, Narita’s terminals are capable of handling 42 million passengers p/a – well above the 35 million handled last year. A new rapid rail system is also under construction and when completed in 2010, will link Narita with the nation’s capital in about 35 minutes.

Today’s celebrations aside, Narita has been progressively losing its gateway position ahead of its planned privatisation. Cities such as Fukuoka, Osaka and Nagoya have diluted the international travel market to Japan that flows through capacity constrained Narita in recent years.

Japan international visitor arrivals (annual) versus Narita Airport traffic (annual): 2000 to 2007 (Index 1 = 2000)

Source: Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, PATA & company reports

A Japanese Government economic advisory panel will reportedly recommend an increase in international slots at Tokyo Haneda Airport from the already announced 30,000 p/a, to at least 60,000 p/a, after the airport’s third runway opens in 2010, which could further undermine Narita’s position.

Currently, Haneda has approximately 300,000 annual slots, which will increase with the new runway to 410,000 p/a. Of the new 110,000 slots, 20,000 have been set aside for domestic services, and 30,000 for international services, leaving 60,000 remaining movements. Private sector members of the economic advisory panel are recommending more slots for services between Japan and North and Southeast Asia, including services by both domestic and international LCCs. The panel will also reportedly call for an end to the regulation of slots at Tokyo Narita, so it can increase the total at Haneda and Narita to 1 million by mid next decade.

But the reforms do not stop at slots. In a sign Japan may shed some of the protections that have stifled its industry in the past, members of the panel are also expected to call for negotiations on open skies aviation agreement with more Asian countries, as well as the US and the EU. The Japanese Government’s Asian Gateways policy aims to open up Japan’s regional gateways to more international competition. This all points to a more competitive future for Japan’s aviation market, which will stimulate growth and renewal.

In another 30 years, Narita’s role as a gateway will still be strong, but there will be immense changes and growth at the smaller Japanese airports, as the tide of liberalisation washes through.

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