25 November 2010
International Flights Commence from Tokyo International Airport
Michael Jennings

As cities have expanded and their populations have become richer, and as the cost of air travel has dropped, airports have in many cities become overstretched, particularly if a city’s main airport was built decades ago in an area close to the centre of town, and now surrounded by populated areas into which the airport cannot easily be expanded. (Airports of course attract economic activity, so after a few years a major airport will always be surrounded by populated areas, even if it was initially built away from them).

There are two ways a city can deal with this. It can expand the original airport, which is costly, both financially and politically, and generally requires significant compulsory purchase of land and leads to public protest. Or it can build another airport.

If another airport is built, this will almost always be built a lot further from the centre of the city than the existing airport. Passengers and airlines will thus be reluctant to use the new airport in preference to the old airport, for reasons of convenience, and due to a “critical mass” factor. Airlines like to fly to destinations where there are lots of connecting flights, as passengers do not want to have to travel from one airport to another to change planes. This is especially so for high yield business passengers. All kinds of related businesses come into being around airports, and these businesses do not wish to move either.

Therefore, if you build a new airport and allow the old airport to remain open, it is quite conceivable that the new airport will remain largely unused, most flights will continue operating from the old airport, and airlines and related industries will continue pressuring government to allow further expansion of the old airport. This is more or less what has happened in London. Stansted Airport was expanded and the late 1980s. The intention was that Stansted would be mainly for long haul international travel, and would grow to rival Heathrow in this market. This entirely failed to happen, airlines continued to use Heathrow, those few airlines that attempted to run long haul services out of Stansted generally failed due to a lack of premium traffic, Heathrow was expanded further and pressure continues for more expansion still. Stansted was massively underutilised for a long time, eventually becoming a busy airport as a base for low cost airlines, an entirely different market to that originally envisaged.

Another option is to close the old airport. This is generally effective in terms of moving traffic to the new airport, but if the point of building the new airport is to make of for massive shortages in capacity, then closing down all your existing capacity seldom makes sense. There are cases where it does - Kai Tak airport in Hong Kong had a dangerous flightpath, and its location meant that there were major restrictions of the size of building that could be constructed in a large portion of the city. In this case, the move to the new airport at Chek Lap Kok was exemplary. Superb and fast transport links to the new airport were made available the day it opened. Truly spectacular engineering works turned a small but relatively tall island into the much larger but completely flat island on which the new, very large, airport was built.

This is an exception, though. Generally, what is desired is that the old airport will remain open but will not be greatly increased in capacity going forward. Hopefully most of the economies of scale and airport related businesses will move to the new site. What is desired is that the new airport will become the city’s main hub, and the older airport will fade to being the secondary airport.The trouble is that market forces tend to prefer the reverse.

Governments tend to attempt to solve this problem by regulating the activities that may take place at the old airport. The most common way of doing this is to insist that all international flights use the new airport, and that only domestic flights will be subsequently allowed to use the old airport. The idea is that people flying domestically are likely to be making short flights, often out and back in a day. On the other hand, traveling internationally is a big deal and often takes longer, and so travelers are likely to be less concerned about the time and distance getting to and from the airport.

This type of practice can often be a cover for protection of locally owned airlines, as these tend to be the ones who fly domestic routes, and as a consequence the practice is flat illegal in the European Union. (If it is legal to fly from airport X to London it must also be legal to fly from airport X to Paris, and Lisbon, and Bucharest). However, it has been common in other parts of the world. And it can backfire.

When discussing the question of just how much money various Canadian governments lost when hosting the Montreal Olympics, an argument that was used (and still sometimes is by people not paying close attention) is that “Many of the costs were not really about the Olympics. For one thing, the city of Montreal built a new airport, and they would have done that anyway”. As it happens, the first part of this sentence is true. Mirabel International Airport was indeed opened just before the Montreal Olympics. The original intention was that all flights into Montreal would ultimately use the new airport, but initially international flights only were forced to use it. Bluntly, everyone hated this, as the airport was a long way from Montreal, transport links were poor, and the existing Dorval airport was much more convenient. Rather than going to Mirabel, passengers would instead fly domestically to Toronto, change planes, and then fly on to international destinations. Eventually, plans to close Dorval were abandoned, and in 1997 international flights were once again allowed to use it. Today, Dorval has been expanded, and there are no scheduled flights from Mirabel to anywhere. So much for the airport dividend from the 1976 Olympics.

Of course, Montreal has been a city in relative decline, and Canada has a particularly uncompetitive aviation industry. In most instances in Europe or Asia, both airports would be used for something. A more interesting tale is the story of Tokyo, which has had an interesting development in the last month.

Tokyo International Airport was founded at a place named Haneda on the edge of Tokyo Bay in 1931, and is pretty much universally known as “Haneda Airport”. Haneda airport is extremely centrally located, being a 15 minute train ride from central Tokyo. In the mid 1960s, due to increased wealth and demand for air travel, it was decided that further expansion of Haneda was going to be difficult due to its proximity to the city and the difficulties of building further into Tokyo Bay with respect to landfill and the effect on shipping. As Tokyo is such an enormous city, the nearest suitable location was at Narita in Chiba Prefecture, about 60km from central Tokyo. The idea was to build an enormous four runway airport that could cope with Tokyo’s growth.

As it happened, though, building the airport in Narita turned out to be highly problematic. The land it was to be built on was mostly owned by rice farmers, who are an extremely powerful political lobby. Japan had virtually no history of compulsory acquisition of land for such projects, so the project was on shaky grounds both legally and culturally. Before the airport could be built, there were riots, demonstrations, legal challenges, sabotage, vandalism, and all kinds of other controversies. The airport opened in 1978, but its second runway did not open until 2002. The airport today is much smaller than originally planned. None the less, all international flights were forced to use Narita (with the exception of flight to Taiwan, which were kept from Haneda until 2002 in order that they avoid political controversies from using the same airport as flights from mainland China).

In the meantime, Japanese governments discovered that they preferred to confront engineering obstacles to confronting political obstacles when building airports. (This was aided by the fact that Japanese contruction companies are another powerful political lobby, and overengineered boondoggles thus became a Japanese specialty). Therefore, Haneda airport was further expanded. (Subsequent airports were built on artificial islands and such, to avoid the Narita controversy again). As the Japanese economy grew, demand for domestic air travel in and out of Tokyo grew, and Haneda airport became by far the largest and busiest airport in Asia, and one of the largest in the world. It remains one of the largest in the world, although Beijing Capital airport is now the busiest in Asia. Haneda retained its name - “Tokyo International Airport”, although it hosted no international flights. Narita officially became “New Tokyo International Airport” although this was all so confusing that the two airports were invariably referred to as “Haneda” and “Narita”. Haneda had a very curious character, though, for one of the busiest airports in the world. Virtually nobody outside its native country had traveled through it or even heard of it. International travel into and out of Tokyo remained much less developed than domestic travel, possibly due to Japan’s rather insular character, and partly due to the inadequate infrastructure, and great inconvenience of getting from Tokyo to its main international airport.

Over the last decade and some, though, things have changed. Japan has stagnated economically, as much of the rest of Asia has flourished. Japanese public finances have reached the point that expensive boondoggles can no longer be afforded. Cheap, discount air travel has become established throughout the rest of Asia, and Japan has been largely excluded from this due to its expensive, inaccessible airports.

This has led to a slow opening up of Haneda. The most obvious short haul international routes out of Tokyo that would benefit from flying from convenient airports in order to facilitate short business trips and the like are those to Korea. As it happens, Seoul also has an old, relatively central airport (Gimpo) and a newer, bigger aiport (Incheon) which all international flights were required to use upon its completion. Both airports made an exception for one another, however. From 2003, international flights were allowed from Haneda to Gimpo, which for a time were the only international flights allowed from either airport.

With the continued economic growth of China, however, routes from Haneda to China became more important. As it happened, Shanghai also had an old, relatively central airport (Hongqiao) and a newer, bigger airport (Pudong) which all international flights were required to use upon its completion. However, in 2007, an agreement was made to start flights from Haneda to Hangqiao. Flights from Seoul Gimpo to Hangqiao were commenced at the same time. This led to a truly magnificent rule for international flights out of Haneda. International flights out of Haneda were only permitted to other airports on short haul routes that did not allow international flights (Rumours that passengers were not permitted to fly on these routes unless they had done six impossible things before breakfast have never been confirmed).

In effect, Haneda, Gimpo, and Hangqiao airports (ie the domestic airports Tokyo, Seoul, and Shanghai) had decided that they would allow international routes between each other. If you have some familiarity with North East Asian geopolitics, there is one major destination missing: Beijing.

As it happens, Beijing has an older airport that only hosts domestic flights: Nanyuan. In 2007, Japan and China agreed that flights would be allowed from Haneda to Nanyuan, and Korea made a similar agreement with China. You can tell where this is going, can’t you?

Actually you can’t. Nanyuan is primarily a military airfield, and although there were governmental agreements to in theory allow flights from Gimpo and Haneda to Nanyuan, getting the Chinese military to agree to Japanese and Korean airlines flying into their base was another thing entirely. Flights therefore commenced in 2008, but flying to Beijing Capital airport on a “temporary” basis. They are still there.

The prohibition on international flights into Haneda was at that point more or less broken. This may have been the point.

Unlike Narita, Haneda airport has been expanded dramatically in recent years. The Tokyo Metropolitan government has (very conveniently) used the adjacent bay area as a landfill in recent decades, which has facilitated expansion of the airport, even though the national Transport Ministry has not always been supportive. New runways were opened in 1988, 1997, 2000, and 2010, and new terminals in 2004 and 2010. Government initially announced that some of this new capacity in 2010 would be permitted for international flights up to 1947km or less (the same distance as the longest domestic flight), which was a further concession to the existing flights to Seoul, Shanghai, and Beijing. Flights to and from any destination were allowed when Narita airport was closed, between 11pm and 6am.

A further concession to this was made before the new terminal opened last month, allowing flights from any destination to arrive (but not depart) between 6am and 8.30am, and to depart (but not arrive) between 8.30pm and 11pm. There is still a protectionist element in this. If a foreign long haul airline flies into Haneda at relatively civilized hour of the morning, the plane must sit on the tarmac until the evening before it may fly out again. Japanese airlines, on the other hand, can use the aircraft for domestic or short haul Asian routes during the daytime. This will not last though. Basically, Haneda airport is now a full international airport again. Long haul carriers to Europe and the US have commenced flights, as have discount and other airlines to points in South-East Asia.

There will be overwhelming pressure to finish derestricting its operating hours. Narita will become the secondary airport. It won’t go the way of Montreal Mirabel - airport capacity is still at too great a premium in Japan - but the premium traffic will all return to Haneda.

It is interesting to see how western journalists and western publications have reported the reopening of Haneda as an international airport. There is discussion of the facilities, and variability in understanding what was actually going on. This, I think is my favourite. No, Haneda is not Tokyo’s second biggest airport, it is by far the biggest, and always has been. The question is not whether Haneda is Tokyo’s second major airport, but whether Narita ever managed to gain that role itself. As was often the case, Japan was somewhat closed to the world, and opaque to foreigners, but if you are going to write about it, you need to have a proper explanation of how things reached the state they are now in.

As I hope readers of this blog now have.

  1. “New runways were opened in 1988, 1997, 2000, and 2010…”

    Huh?  And there must have already been at least one to start off with bringing us up to a minimum of five.

    But Heathrow, as I understand it a vast, if not the vastest airport in the world, has only two.

    How come?

    Posted by Patrick Crozier on  06 December 2010 at 05:27 am

  2. Heathrow is very busy, but physically quite small. It requires a lot of work and fine coordination to get as much out of those two runways. There are many airports in the world with more than two runways. Denver has six, for instance. Haneda has four at present. Two older runways were closed, probably because they were inadequate for modern aircraft.

    Posted by Michael Jennings on  07 December 2010 at 04:32 am

  3. Good read - I hadn’t realised until you pointed it out that Haneda is taking international flights again.

    I was googling to see whether Narita and Haneda airports are under the same management, and it appears that they are not.  Looks like Narita may now be courting low cost carriers to recover from falling passenger numbers.

    Posted by Saijobob on  03 July 2011 at 03:38 pm

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