On one global ranking chart, Haneda, Narita and Kansai airports occupy the top three spots. Unfortunately for three of Japan’s international airports, this is not for passenger satisfaction or facilities, but for the highest landing and parking fees which airlines pay for their planes. Some reductions have been announced in recent years, but most of these are targeted at the new low cost carriers (LCCs), which the government has been trying to attract to Japanese airports, leaving established operators still forking out significantly more than they do at other major hubs.
Despite the authorities pledging to make Tokyo more accessible in the run-up to the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, European airlines hold out little hope for meaningful reductions in the high fees. Those in the industry believe there is a danger of Japanese airports continuing to lose status in the face of stiff competition from major Asian hubs — Hong Kong, Singapore and Seoul’s Incheon — with lower fees. Many believe they are also subsidising both the new LCCs and unprofitable local airports through the fee system, which is overseen by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism (MLIT).
The high landing fees at Narita, where a new dedicated LCC third terminal opened in April, are also due to the extensive perimeter security (a legacy of the battles that occurred with local residents when the airport was first constructed), says Swiss Air Japan country manager Noburo Okabe. Albeit the passport checkpoint on vehicles entering the airport — long criticised as meaningless, wasteful and time-consuming — finally ended earlier this year, he adds. Another factor, affecting all domestic airports, is the relatively high wages in Japan compared to countries like South Korea.
“We also assume the government raises money from the landing fees to subsidise loss-making regional airports, though no official will say that openly,” suggests Okabe.
One manager at a European airline, who asked not to be identified, suggested that, while the fees do heavily burden established carriers at the major airports, passengers pay in other ways elsewhere.
“The landing fees are said to be highest in the world. However, many other international airports charge very high airport taxes to customers. In Japan, the majority of the cost is paid by the airline,” said the manager, while acknowledging that much of those costs are passed along to passengers in the end.
The central government manages 27 of Japan’s 100 airports via the MLIT, which has now adopted an official policy of reducing landing fees, according to Geoffrey Tudor, a senior analyst at Japan Aviation Management Research.
“The announcement from Narita in February that it would be reducing landing fees for new services at airlines already using the airport is to compete with Asian hubs, especially Incheon and Hong Kong, but also with Haneda,” says Tudor. “However, the fact that the government effectively owns both of Tokyo’s main airports can only be a barrier to real competition between the two.”
The fee cuts are part of reforms being adopted as a step toward privatisation, according to Tudor, “This will involve the creation of a new business which can call the shots on landing fees. At the moment, those fees are not based on market principles.”
Along with control of the allocation of landing slots, high landing fees were a “form of protection for Japanese airlines, though one they can no longer rely on,” says Tudor.
The issue of landing slots is another long-term gripe among foreign airlines in Japan, though some note the country is hardly unique in that respect.
“ANA [All Nippon Airways] and JAL [Japan Airlines] do historically get the best slots, but that is something that happens with national carriers all over the world,” says Swiss Air’s Okabe.
For the time being, European airlines appear to have little choice but to continue lobbying for more prime slots and pay the high fees, or shift more of their operations out of Japan.
“Narita is the end of the line for us; and we’ve been here for 65 years, so our commitment to Japan is long term,” says Leif Nilsson manager for Asia and Pacific at Scandinavian Airlines (SAS). “A lot of the US airlines do fly on to other destinations in Asia, and Seoul’s Incheon and Hong Kong have lower fees; Japan needs to be careful about this.”
For SAS, “We rotate aircraft as soon as possible, so we don’t get charged the high parking fees,” continues Nilsson. “If you have a flight arriving in the middle of the night, that can lead to six to eight hours of parking fees, which is expensive.”
Despite its lengthy presence in Japan, SAS has not yet been granted any slots at Haneda, nor has its Swiss counterpart or a number of other European operators. Although most international carriers are keen to expand their presence at Haneda, with its much closer proximity to central Tokyo than Chiba’s Narita, it is the latter that is scheduled to have its facilities upgraded before the Olympics, according to Nilsson. In addition, he says the government has not yet announced any plans for a much-needed rapid transport link between Tokyo’s two main airports.
Swiss Air’s Okabe is not expecting any landing fee reductions in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics, though he is at least hopeful for an expansion of the number of daytime slots at Haneda.
“In order to do that, they have to change flight paths; and with that there is the issue of noise, which the government has to settle with residents,” he says.© Japan Today