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Narita Airport to Open Despite Controversy - 2002-04-17

Tokyo's Narita Airport's new runway finally goes into operation Thursday, helping ease congestion at one of the world's most crowded international airports. The airport's expansion has been marred by an old controversy between officials and local farmers.

Narita ranks just 13th in the world in terms of airport departures and landings, with just a quarter of the international flights of London's Heathrow Airport. But officials say Narita will soon boost the number of flights from 135,000 to 200,000 a year.

Tom Ballantyne is chief correspondent for Orient Aviation Magazine. "Narita desperately needed a second runway. There are not many major big city airports in the world that only have one runway," he said.

The Tokyo area is home to 33 million people and the city is capital of the world's second largest economy. So the limited capacity at its international airport may seem surprising.

But since its inception, the airport has faced fierce opposition from nearby residents, and that opposition greatly limits efforts to expand the airport.

The conflict goes back to 1966, when the Japanese government decided to build an airport in Narita, a small farming community 65 kilometers east of Tokyo. Farmers objected to the government's practice of forcibly buying up their ancestral land for the airport.

They formed an opposition league and radical student groups joined them. Several days before the airport's opening in 1978, activists occupied the control tower and damaged equipment, forcing officials to postpone the debut.

Violent battles followed, with protesters wielding bamboo lances as they battled police, four of whom were killed.

Airport officials now say the compulsory land sales were a mistake. During the last decade, they stopped the practice, and some farmers voluntarily sold their property.

Toru Nakamura, the head of the Narita Airport Authority, says the relationship with area residents has improved. He says the airport has soundproofed the homes of many nearby residents to block the noise of the aircraft. But he adds that it would be better for them to move away.

Several farmers still refuse to sell or rent their land to the airport authority. As a result, Narita's new runway extends less than 2,200 meters, just over half the length of the original runway.

That means it cannot accommodate most flights to the United States and Europe, because it is too short for the big jumbo jets. Instead, it will be used for smaller aircraft on short-haul flights to destinations in Japan and Asia.

Mr. Ballantyne of Orient Aviation says that because some farmers still have not sold their land, the taxiways bend awkwardly. It also means that jets pass just 40 meters over some homes as they land.

"It simply is an ongoing problem, which the airport authorities, airlines and government had to cope with," he said. "There is nothing they can do about it. The rules say they cannot do these things without getting permission from farmers and they have to live with that."

Despite lingering tensions, many in the local community think the airport has been good for the economy. Former farm land is now filled with hotels and shopping malls, which provide jobs for local residents, even as Japan endures its third recession in a decade.

Some villagers, as well as local government officials, worry about competition from the nearby domestic airport, Haneda. It sits on reclaimed land in Tokyo Bay, making expansion easy. Its three runways can handle twice as many flights as Narita. Few international flights are allowed to arrive and depart from Haneda at present. However, there are concerns that this will change, even though Japan's Transport Ministry says that option is not being considered.

Aviation analysts say there is a big reason that Narita will remain Tokyo's only international airport: They say that expanding other airports would be tantamount to having the central government admit that it made a costly and time-consuming mistake.