For decades Japanese airports have been governed by an Airport Improvement Act (空港整備法) which apportioned control and funding of airport projects between the national and regional governments. Earlier this year, the Diet signed off on an overhaul of the statute which changes its name to the Airport Act (空港法) and focuses the law on promoting the competitiveness, rather than development, of Japan’s airports. After all, the country has already over-developed its airports in many areas ([cough] Osaka [cough]); now it needs to rationalize their existence.
Under the old law, there were three “categories” of airports: the largest international airports were designated as Category 1, the main city airports as Category 2 and the smaller regional airports as Category 3. Category 1 airports were funded, constructed and controlled solely by the Ministry of Transport unless privatized. Category 2 airports could be centrally controlled, in which case Kasumigaseki would fund 2/3 of construction costs, or could be moved to local control, in which case Kasumigaseki would fund 55%. Category 3 airports were controlled by local governments and construction costs split 50/50 with the state.
The new law has reshuffled these categories a bit and made them more logical. Category 1 is now effectively gone, which makes sense since it has been obsolete for some time: three of the Category 1 airports (Narita, Kansai and Chubu) have been privatized and funded under their own respective statutes for some time, while the other two (Haneda and Itami) currently operate in roles more befitting of Category 2 status.
Categories 2 and 3 are now known as “state-administered airports” and “regionally-administered airports” respectively, and the small collection of regionally-administered Category 2 airports are now lumped in with the Category 3 airports. So now the system is a bit easier to explain: if the Transport Ministry runs the airport, the state pays 2/3 and the prefecture pays 1/3; if the prefecture or municipality runs the airport, costs are split evenly.
The new law also requires the Transport Minister to prepare and publish a Basic Plan (基本方針) for the country’s airports. While the plan is still in development, the Transport Ministry has given some preliminary comments on what will be in there. Among the more interesting specific points raised:
- International terminal projects at Category 2-level airports such as New Chitose, intended to improve capacity as direct international flights to the regions become more popular. Chitose has really been overdue for some terminal expansion, in this blogger’s lofty opinion.
- Improved airfreight handling systems to make Japan’s airports more competitive with Asia’s as cargo hubs.
- More multilingual signage at regional airports, adding Chinese and Korean (and possibly Russian or other languages) to the existing Japanese and English. Some airports are already there but others are apparently lagging.
- Soundproofing homes in areas adjoining airports–a huge policy issue already around Narita, Itami and other land-locked airfields.
- Expanding Haneda’s international services to Beijing and Taipei, and permitting scheduled long-range flights from Haneda during the late night and early morning hours when Narita is closed.
- Maintaining the current status quo in the Kansai region: KIX is the wave of the future for everything, Itami is suffered for as long as people want to use it, and Kobe is heavily restricted so that it doesn’t really compete with the others.
Provisions for “joint-use airports”
One interesting footnote to the new law is that it specifically contemplates joint-use airports; i.e. those split between commercial/private operations and SDF/US military operations. There are a few airfields, such as Misawa Air Base in Aomori, which already operate on this model. The real unwritten target in this instance seems to be Yokota Air Base, the huge US Air Force logistics airfield in west Tokyo: policy wonks and Tokyo politicians have been salivating for a while over the prospect of starting commercial flights there, and there’s even a note or two about it in the Transport Ministry’s planning materials.