What to do with an obsolete airport

Itami Airport

The media is reporting that Osaka governor Toru Hashimoto is thinking of demolishing Itami Airport and building an international academic village on the property where everybody speaks English. People are already raising hell about this idea over at Debito’s blog. I think it’s a silly idea (as presented, anyway) and will never make it out of committee, but the issue of what to do with Itami is still pertinent, as Osaka really doesn’t need three airports.

What can you do with an airport you don’t need any more? Here are five possibly pertinent examples:

  1. Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong
    Kai Tak has many parallels to Itami. It was mostly built by the Japanese military (during their wartime occupation of Hong Kong), and it occupied a prime central location in huge city that grew increasingly dense over the years. As a result of the latter, the airport was cramped, overcrowded and hair-raisingly difficult to get into: aircraft landing in one direction had to approach the runway at a right angle, then make a hairpin turn just above the ground to touch down (video). Kai Tak was replaced by a somewhat Kansai-like airport, the current Hong Kong International Airport, in 1998, and was promptly closed. Since then, the site has been more or less empty despite constantly-shifting plans to build hotels, cruise piers and a giant stadium there.
  2. Stapleton Airport, Denver
    In its heyday, Stapleton was one of the busiest airports in the world, serving as a cross-country hub for Continental Airlines and United Airlines. Like Itami, though, it was in the middle of a mostly residential area, which limited its growth potential and caused friction with residents over noise. In the early 90s, the federal government threw millions of dollars into an enormous new airport on the outskirts of the city, Denver International Airport, which is now the second-largest airport in the world. Stapleton was then closed down, and the site converted into a “new town” of 30,000 people.
    (Aside: I visited Denver last November, and the airport strikes me as totally ridiculous–you pass the sign that says “WELCOME TO DIA,” and the next sign says “TERMINALS – 15 MILES.” The largest airport in the world is in Dammam, Saudi Arabia and is larger than the entire country of Bahrain.)
  3. Hoover Field, Washington
    Hoover Field was the first airport in the capital of the United States, back in the earliest days of commercial aviation. It was built across the river from the city in Arlington, Virginia on the other side of the 14th Street Bridge. The site was incredibly cramped, though–most notably, there was a road running through the middle of the main runway, requiring railway crossing gates to be lowered whenever a plane took off or landed. The field was shut down around the start of World War II, when National Airport opened nearby, and the site was then used to build the Pentagon.
  4. Meigs Field, Chicago
    Meigs was a small airport on an artificial peninsula right on the lakefront of Chicago–essentially a miniature 1930’s version of Kansai Airport. It was most famous in its heyday for being the default starting location in Microsoft Flight Simulator. Mayor Richard Daley started campaigning in the early 90’s to convert the site into a giant park, and after a decade of bureaucratic stalling by Congress and the FAA, he took matters in his own hands and ordered the runway bulldozed into uselessness overnight. The site is now a lakefront park and was briefly being sold as a potential venue for the 2016 Olympics.
  5. Old Kitakyushu Airport, Kitakyushu
    This is probably the closest parallel in Japan to a potential Itami closing scenario. The old Kitakyushu Airport was a relatively small facility, with one runway and a handful of daily flights to Haneda Airport in Tokyo, using relatively small YS-11 prop planes, later replaced by faster but still small MD-80 jets. The airport was clearly a bit of joke even in the mid-70s, and so the local government commissioned a new, larger offshore airport nearby, which opened in 2006 (and, surprisingly enough, is still not all that popular). The site was initially envisioned as a new urban project, but there were no takers; economics finally came out victorious, and the site is now zoned for industrial use, housing a hospital and a couple of industrial production sites.

There is one fate which Osaka undoubtedly wants to avoid–the fate of Montreal. Montreal spent something like a billion dollars to build and expand a giant airport on the outskirts, Mirabel Airport, which would have been the largest in the world were it ever completed. Just like Osaka, Montreal projected that their old downtown airport, Dorval, would quickly become too small for demand, and they tried to lock international carriers into the more distant Mirabel in order to artificially boost its popularity despite stagnating overall demand. The result was that Montreal lost relevance as an air hub, since nobody wanted to connect between the airports, and the city was getting less internationally relevant anyway. Montreal eventually gave up on Mirabel and moved everything back to Dorval in the nineties, leaving their gleaming new airport as a gleaming white elephant plied only by a few cargo planes.

So what could Osaka do with Itami Airport’s site? As a former Itami resident (I had a host family there back during my first stay in Japan), I have some ideas of my own.

First of all, it would be great as a replacement for the rail freight yard in Umeda, which is a pretty wasteful use of downtown space. ITM is right next to a JR trunk line and could be connected fairly easily — it also isn’t far from the Sanyo Shinkansen, which could theoretically be used for some freight traffic in the future once everything goes maglev. Then the downtown space occupied by the current yard could be fully converted into residential or commercial buildings. (UR has actually already started this process on one side of the yard.) This would also fit in fairly well with the light industrial character of the immediately surrounding real estate.

If you want to get a bit more fantastic, how about a space elevator? Or perhaps a new central government location for some of those Tokyo-bound bureaucrats? (I already proposed a similar fate for KIX in comments to this post.) Perhaps the Defense Ministry could move out there and give up its nice space in Ichigaya, though I’m sure the more lefty locals wouldn’t like that plan.

16 thoughts on “What to do with an obsolete airport”

  1. That freight yard is has already been marked down as the proposed site of a new 80,000 seat football stadium.

  2. Aren’t they building the new Osaka station on that bit behind the current Osaka station, near Umeda Sky Building?

    Any way, a cheap residential area might be good to house then homeless of Osaka in a ploy to get rid of the blue plastic towns.

  3. Three words:

    Osaka. Disney. Resort.

    USJ and the mouse duke it out in Kansai. Gloves off. No holds barred.

  4. I’m not sure a space elevator has to be RIGHT on the equator, but it is certainly going to be built as close as possible. If Japan were to build one, they’d probably put it down in Okinawa, although in the alternate history where the Japanese Empire won the war, they’d probably put it on an artificial island near the Kaohsiung Spaceport.

  5. I must say, the “English village” plan just sounds insane to me. The idea of having an area where a bunch of foreigners live as an enclave with no particular economic opportunities is obviously half-baked, at best. Maybe if they were talking about making it into a highly internationalized high-tech research park, rather than some kind of bloated international school/theme park, it would make some kind of sense, but Hashimoto obviously hasn’t thought about either the logistics or details of his proposal in any way.

    I don’t think I’ve ever actually been to Itami, but KIX is a pretty decent airport and their free Wifi service s certainly appreciated. The Kobe airport was clearly a bit of a boondoggle, but KIX really could use a train upgrade if it’s going to become the only regional airport. I have trouble imagining KIX going the way of Mirabel, since Itami really would not be able to handle all the international traffic, but keeping them both alive is just bleeding them both to death.

    Another comparison worth looking at is Taipei’s Songshan airport and the Taoyuan International Airport (formerly CKS International Airport.) Songshan, like Itami and many of these other older airports, is located conveniently right inside Taipei City, but far, far too small for the region’s international traffic. It was first created as Japanese military airport (I have an old poster map where you can see Japanese air force planes docked and landing at Songshan), and then became a ROC military airport until it was mostly turned over to civilian use in 1950. After CKS was opened in 1979 Songshan lost international traffic (although it is technically still an international airport, it only served domestic routes) and became the domestic complement to CKS International, but since the opening of Taiwan’s Shinkansen-based high speed rail, the domestic rail industry has basically collapsed and Songshan became largely stagnant, with virtually all domestic routes shut down by late 2008.

    However, unlike the old airports in many cities, Songshan was not redeveloped, I think partly due to influence from the nation’s military planners (there are still a surprising number of small military bases and armories throughout Taipei). Therefore, when cross-straight flights to China started, they used the opportunity to make Songshan the primary airport for those flights, which has seen enough of an increase in usage that both terminals are now in use again. More recently, Taipei and Tokyo have negotiated an agreement to start a Haneda/Songshan route, and they are considering short range international flights to other nearby major cities.

  6. Along these lines, what has happened with the old Komaki Airport in Nagoya? Centrair is nice and flash, but a bit like KIX. Remote. I only used Itami once, to fly to Hong Kong (pre-KIX days) but it was old and worn then.

    Look for a space elevator in about another hundred years. Perhaps on Taprobane, by the Fountains of Paradise….

  7. Thing is, KIX is the obsolete airport, not Itami. Itami is easy to get to, easy to use. It is popular with travelers (but not necessarily Itami residents!) and actually competes with Shin-Osaka St. for business commuters who travel to Tokyo.

    I understand *why* Hashimoto is pushing this. I just don’t necessarily agree with it.

  8. Itami handles all of the domestic traffic now, but could it possibly handle the international traffic of KIX as well? There is also no possible way that Itami can be expanded. KIX may not have the most convenient location, but Kobe didn’t want it built near them, and there weren’t any good sites on land, so into the bay it was. The travel time makes KIX rather unpleasant for domestic flights, but I prefer land for domestic travel anyway, and with the MK Taxi Skygate Shuttle (does Narita have something equivalent?) I can get door to door service home/airport without having to lug my luggage.

  9. First, I agree with Bashcraft.

    Second, I was going to finish a post I had on this when I first read this story, but Joe, you beat me to it.

    I think Osaka should set up an Economic “Freezone” with its own business-friendly legal system that only applies inside the zone, and which defaults to Delaware Law, where LLCs and companies can be incorporated easily (even online), where English is the language of the law, and where taxes are reduced and flow-through.

    Sound crazy? Dubai went from a sand pit to an international city by setting up about a dozen freezones in its municipal limits. Japan could revitalize its inbound international business by doing the same thing.

  10. “Maybe if they were talking about making it into a highly internationalized high-tech research park”

    Hashimoto is just parroting the recent Korean plan to do this without giving any details.

    Curzon’s idea sounds solid – couldn’t hurt for a city on the wane to try some new things. And with the DPJ thinking of revamping Tokyo-region power dynamics, they just might be able to pull something like that off in the medium term.

  11. Kobe didn’t want it built near them

    Ironic, since Kobe went ahead and built their own airport just offshore anyway after the earthquake. An airport which was only meeting 60% of its passenger targets when it opened at the height of the economic boom in 2006; there are likely even fewer now.

  12. Actually, Kobe *did* eventually want KIX to be built near them, but the south Osaka plan won at the national burro-crat level. Wikipedia says:


    In retrospect, Kobe probably would have been better off building a tunnel to KIX and running trains there from downtown (real proposal; see this post), rather than trying to create their own pint-sized KIX which Kasumigaseki didn’t want.

    The economic free zone idea isn’t bad, but I find it kind of unlikely. Hong Kong and Singapore already beat Japan to the punch, and they have the advantages of being entire cities rather than a tiny sliver of one. Dubai’s free zone is on more even footing with its (relatively few) competitors.

  13. Re the English Village plan, Why doesn’t Hashimoto recognize other languages and cultures in the world?

    I can only speak for myself but living in an eikaiwa encampment sounds like one of my worst nightmares come true.

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