When passenger aircraft departing from Kansai head in the direction of Tokyo's Haneda airport, they take a convoluted route, first flying 50 kilometers south of the airport and then circling around the Boso Peninsula (Chiba) before turning left and flying toward Haneda.
Why? Shukan Gendai (Dec 15) states that one obvious answer is that aircraft are not permitted to fly over central Tokyo at low altitudes. But this is not the only reason. As Koji Yabe -- author of a book from Kodansha Gendai Shinsho titled "You need to know how Japan lost control" -- puts it: "The airspace above Tokyo is controlled by the U.S. military, and Japanese civilian aircraft can't enter it without permission of the U.S. military. But since the major carriers JAL and ANA cannot keep requesting permission for each individual flight, they instead take an extremely unnatural detour to their destination."
The Yokota airspace, centered on the air above Yokota Air Base in Fussa City, a suburb west of Tokyo, extends over parts of Tokyo and eight other prefectures: Kanagawa, Shizuoka, Saitama, Yamanashi, Gunma, Tochigi, Nagano and Niigata -- almost as far as the Sea of Japan, and covering altitudes in six stages ranging from a maximum of 7,000 meters to a minimum of 2,400 meters.
How did this bizarre situation come to pass?
"Actually until 1960, when then-Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi negotiated a revised Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, all of Japan's airspace was under U.S. military control," said Yabe. "Complaining that this arrangement was 'unfair,' in 1959, the decision was made to request that control of all airspace revert to Japan. But the U.S. side argued that as long as it maintained its bases in Japan, their presence would be meaningless unless its planes could have free access. So a secret pact was concluded that excepted airspace in areas proximate to the U.S. bases. And since the word "proximate" is vague, the total area controlled by the U.S. came to be expanded.
"For example, a flight between Haneda and Osaka's Itami airport, which presently takes 50 minutes, would require only 40 minutes if the planes did not have to detour away from the Yokota airspace," Yabe added. "This also requires the jet to achieve a higher altitude more quickly after takeoff, adding to the fuel consumption -- which of course is borne by passengers."
Shukan Gendai explains yen per gallon of aviation fuel, a flight of 50 minutes will consume approximately 900,000 yen worth of fuel. If the flight time can be reduced by 10 minutes (600 seconds), that would result in savings of 180,000 yen. On a flight carrying 300 passengers, that would mean a savings of 600 yen per person. Without having to bother with the Yokota airspace, this would lead to a corresponding reduction in ticket prices.
What's more, making more flights from Haneda and Narita to take a detour to the south aggravates air traffic congestion, raising the risks of accident. Even in the case of sudden unfavorable weather conditions, such as thunderstorms or hail, for example, the control tower will instruct pilots to "Stay on course, and keep out of the Yokota airspace."
Yabe finds it hard to conceal his indignation. "In addition to being the only capital city in any country in the world whose airspace is under control of a foreign military, Japanese planes are only accorded a few minutes of freedom over a small portion of their route. This gives you an idea of what an abnormal situation Japan is facing."
The article concludes that Okinawa is not the only part of Japan that's obliged to deal with U.S. base-related problems.© Japan Today