Making a future for corporate aircraft in Japan – maybe using airports you didn’t know existed

Japan has long had an aviation policy which favors airplanes as a mode of mass transit, and favors big carriers like ANA and JAL. You can view this as populist or pro-corporate, or perhaps both. But one thing is for certain: private aviation has never been able to take off here, despite all the wealth and business available to support it.

As late as the mid-90s, long-haul private jet flights had their pick of five daily slots at Narita which were shared with charter flights, making it impossible to fly in and out of Tokyo without a couple months’ notice — enough to make US biz-jet industry representatives complain to Congress. Even for domestic flights today, the flight plan must be filed with the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport a week or so before the flight, making it impossible to just jet around the country at short notice.

Another key problem is the lack of available facilities. Most huge cities around the world have airports with little or no scheduled service which can serve private planes almost exclusively: New York (Teterboro and Westchester), London (Luton and Farnborough), Paris (Le Bourget), Los Angeles (Van Nuys), Miami (Kendall) and Atlanta (DeKalb) have all gotten it right. The closest thing in Tokyo is the tiny airport in Chofu, which isn’t big enough to handle business jets and can’t be expanded due to the surrounding city area. (The situation is easier in Japan’s secondary cities, though–Osaka has the giant Yao Airport and the new Kobe Airport, and Nagoya’s old Komaki Airport offers many slots for private flights now.)

It isn’t even practical to keep a business aircraft on the ground in most parts of Japan because of high landing and parking costs. The Japanese business jet charter industry, inasmuch as it exists, largely relies on planes and crews based in Guam or other cheaper locales which are close enough to be halfway practical.

Still, Japan has an active Business Aviation Association which has been lobbying to make the government’s policies more friendly to small planes. Just last month, JBAA sent MLIT’s aviation bureau a request to upgrade Tokyo’s airports for easier use by private aircraft–mainly focusing on better facilities at Haneda and more slots at Narita.

The most interesting component of JBAA’s efforts is their proposal to upgrade of a third Tokyo airport for use by business aircraft. There has been much-publicized talk over setting up a big third airport to serve commercial traffic as well, but if the third airport’s role is downscaled a bit, more options become available. One thing you might not know about Tokyo is that it already has a ton of airports–at least ten within a couple hours’ drive of the city center. A good handful are enormous and can theoretically accommodate planes of all sizes. The only problem is that most of them are used for military/defense purposes. Here’s a Google Maps mashup I threw together to illustrate the options available.

View Larger Map

The JBAA has centered its lobbying efforts around the four largest military bases: Yokota, Kisarazu, Shimousa and Atsugi. Each is about as far from Tokyo as Narita (in the 50-90 minute range) and fairly well-situated for access by road (assuming someone who can afford a jet will at least spring for a limo to the airport).

Of course, there are problems inherent to any such proposal. These fields would have to be vacated or at least significantly ceded by defense units which seem to like their digs, and which might do more for the neighborhood economy than a collection of Learjets and Cessnas would. There’s also the ongoing presence of community protesters to consider–the same folks who forced Itami Airport to stop accepting 747s could easily derail plans to keep a vacated defense facility alive. And, of course, we live in a time when private jets often seem like an unacceptable luxury for many of the businesses which used them with reckless abandon just a couple of years ago.

6 thoughts on “Making a future for corporate aircraft in Japan – maybe using airports you didn’t know existed”

  1. Hmmm. I like the one on the other side of Tokyo Bay, across the bridge. Good location for Kanagawa as well.

  2. There are other issues to consider. A lot of these military airfields are “used” for the local populace and governments to hustle money out of the central government. Also, why would the surrounding population trade one noise offender with another? They would be more inclined to shut down the airfield if money was not an issue.

  3. Dude, when is Tokyo going to get public heliports for taxi/bus-esque helicopters? Almost every major building has them. This sector needs to be deregulated and exploited heavily!

  4. I imagine that many still recall the 1977 crash at the Pan Am Building, which ended one of the pioneering scheduled helicopter routes between midtown Manhattan and JFK. Pan Am used to take people right from the top of its building to the airport, but after having debris fall on people in the street from hundreds of feet above, they decided it was better to use heliports by the river. I agree that it would be an awesome service, though.

  5. On a related note, the latest ACCJ magazine has a lengthy cover article on Narita and the changes that US airlines and industry would like to see. Better slots for business aviation were high on the list, along with faster rail access (25-minute maglev service was on their short list, although this sounds like a dream more than a reality) and slowing the international growth of Haneda.

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