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3rd Tokyo airport opens to fanfare, criticism

/ Source: The Associated Press

Tokyo's third international airport opened Thursday with festivity — and heavy criticism that it's a wasteful project expected to serve just a fraction of the passengers forecast.

Hundreds of passengers and visitors wandered Ibaraki Airport's concourses and halls as special commemorative flights were scheduled on opening day. About 170 first arrivals on a special flight from western Kobe were greeted by marching bands, officials and airport mascots.

But its regular schedule has only one international flight a day and no domestic flights until next month.

It was conceived to relieve worsening congestion at Narita, Tokyo's main international airport, and Haneda, which handles more domestic traffic. But Ibaraki's initial annual passenger estimate of 800,000 is now expected to be a quarter of that size.

That is negligible compared to Tokyo's two main airports, which serve 100 million passengers together. Ibaraki also is more than two hours by train or bus from central Tokyo — even farther than Narita, which many already complain is a hike.

Small wonder that Ibaraki's expected to lose as much as 200 million yen ($220,000) in its first year.

Japan's new government has harshly criticized the airport as unnecessary, epitomizing the often wasteful public works projects promoted by the previous pro-business administrations.

But the 22 billion-yen ($240 million) project wasn't shut down because it was too far along when Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama's government came to power last September.

Ibaraki Airport, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northeast of Tokyo, becomes Japan's 98th airport.

Transport Minister Seiji Maehara has said Japan has too many unprofitable airports, and past pressure to use them has burdened domestic airlines — including Japan Airlines Co., the nation's largest, which is under government restructuring following a bankruptcy filing in January.

"We are not going to build any more airports, and we will not force airlines to use them," Maehara said last week, before the airport's opening. "And I do not plan to force Japanese airlines to fly to Ibaraki."

The airport, funded by money from the central and local governments, has only one international regular flight to Seoul, operated by South Korea's Asiana Airlines. No domestic regular flights are expected until mid-April, when budget carrier Skymark Airlines plans to start flying to Kobe, in western Japan.

The airport, which is designed to accommodate budget airlines, boasts low cost features such as use of boarding ramps on the tarmac rather than bridges from the gate.

Ibaraki Gov. Masaru Hashimoto, speaking at Thursday's airport opening ceremony, acknowledged that the airport had a bleak start, but said he still hoped it would contribute to regional development.

Surrounded by several golf courses, the airport may need to lure golf tours from South Korea to survive, Japan's Fuji TV reported.