Haneda airport set to step out of shadows

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The Independent Online

Long operating in the shadow of Narita airport, Tokyo's "other" international gateway has received a boost after new Transport Minister Seiji Maehara stated this week that he intends to turn Haneda Airport into a regional hub for the Asia-Pacific region.

"There is currently no hub airport in Japan," Maehara told reporters on Monday. "With Narita serving international flights and Haneda domestic, South Korea's Incheon airport has become the hub airport for Japan."

Maehara's plan is apparently to halt the practice of making the vast majority of international flights land at Narita - which is unpopular with airlines and travellers alike because it is so far from central Tokyo - and encourage Haneda to take on more overseas traffic.

To achieve that, expansion work is well under way at the airport, which is being built on reclaimed land on the west side of Tokyo Bay. Rail and bus services already link it to central Tokyo in 30 minutes - around half the time required to reach the capital from Narita - and work on a fourth runway is scheduled to be completed in October of next year.

Originally intended as the primary airport for Tokyo, Haneda opened in 1931 as the largest civil airport in the country. International passenger flights began in 1947, with scheduled services to the United States, China, South Korea and the Philippines. European carriers arrived in the 1950s and the monorail link to Tokyo was opened in 1964, shortly before the city hosted the summer Olympic Games.

Limited by its size in the early 1960s, the government of the day started work on Narita, to the east of Tokyo, which opened to international flights in 1978, relegating Haneda to domestic traffic.

With the growth in air travel in recent decades, however, it has become apparent that Tokyo needs more aviation facilities and work to create new man-made islands to become runways began in the 1990s. New runways and terminals have since been completed, with the final piece in the jigsaw a fourth runway, passenger terminal and associated infrastructure.

Already the busiest airport in Asia in terms of passenger throughput, with a remarkable 66.74 million passengers in 2008, Haneda is also the fourth busiest in the world.

The expansion work, which will also enable the facility to operate around the clock, will increase the operational capacity from 285,000 movements a year to 407,000. Much of that will be for international destinations, which will rise to 60,000 overseas flights a year.

The challenge facing Narita will be to transform itself into a more user-friendly facility, according to the airline industry here.

"The biggest challenge facing Narita is that the customer prefers Haneda,” said Charles Duncan, managing director for Japan at Continental Airlines. “And as Haneda opens up more to international services, all of us with an interest in seeing Narita thrive in the future want to make it better.

"The easiest way to assist Narita would be to have a dedicated, high-speed rail line linking Tokyo Station with Narita Airport in 20 or 25 minutes," he said. "It could be a maglev or a Shinkansen, but if we can get the travel time to be competitive with Haneda, then customers will not care about the physical distance."