Fly (not so) high

The Olympic and Paralympic Games are often seen as an opportunity to not only build or refurbish (sporting) facilities, but also to develop various infrastructure such as transportation systems (implementation or extension of railway and bus lines, construction or renovation of train stations and airports, expansion of roads and parking…), to advance universal signage, promote the local culture, and change social behaviour (rise of awareness of physical activity and health, encouragement of language learning, introduction of Olympic and Paralympic education programmes, spread of volunteer spirit, adoption of new work styles…)

In 2019, official figures showed a record of 31.88 million foreign visitors who travelled to Japan. For 2020, the government wished to increase the number to 40 million, and to 60 million by 2030. Therefore, and with an eye towards the Olympic and Paralympic Games that were / are supposed to attract a high amount of people within a restrained period of time, several airports had planned to expand the number of flights prior to the event, and make arrangements in order to assure a smooth arrival and departure for visitors. 

Haneda Airport (officially known as Tōkyō International Airport), counts amongst one of the busiest airports in terms of passenger traffic in Asia, as well as in the world. With the aim to increase the number of international flights by 39,000 to 99,000 per year (60,000 at present), the decision to introduce two new flight routes for the airport was made in August 2019. The new flight routes, though only operating during peak hours and in case of a south wind, which is blowing approximatively in 40% annually, pass over Tōkyō’s centre, including wards such as Shinagawa (at an altitude of around 300 metres), Shibuya (at ⁓ 700 metres) and Shinjuku (at ⁓ 1000 metres). They were tested on seven days between February 2 and February 12, 2020, and officially launched on March 29, 2020.

As prior flights from the north and international flights from Europe needed to take a detour before making final approaches from Tōkyō Bay to Haneda Airport, the two new routes are meant not only to increase the number of aircraft but also to reduce “inefficiency”, notably in terms of time and fuel. Through the introduction of the new routes and the opening of 50 additional slots (all reserved for international flights), the number of departures and arrivals per hour shall increase from 80 to 90 and the overall capacity, including domestic flights, is meant to rise from about 450,000 currently to 490,000. According to projections made by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, the increase of international flights at Haneda Airport’s four runways may generate an income of more than ¥ 650 billion (about USD 6.1 billion) per year.

Main reasons that since Haneda Airport started operations in 1931 and until short while ago, paths had relied on routes over Tōkyō Bay, were to avoid noise pollution within the city centre, the risk of falling objects, and the U.S. military-reserved so-called Yokota airspace. Indeed, before the new routes’ introduction, the U.S. military benefited from exclusive access to certain altitudes of airspace over the area west of Tōkyō, and any aircraft was not allowed to pass the zone without permission from the U.S. forces. The Yokota Radar Approach Control spans not only the Yokota Air Base, but reaches over 300 kilometres north to south, and 120 kilometres east to west, covering several prefectures, including Tōkyō. The airspace is divided into six altitude levels, and even though it lies within Japan, it is regulated by the U.S. military air traffic control. Therefore, U.S. military aircraft are given priority and general commercial aircraft are asked to fly at a higher altitude to maintain an adequate vertical distance. 

In 2019, after long consideration, the governments of Japan and the United States agreed that the U.S. military would accept flight paths for Haneda Airport-bound passenger airplanes routed through the eastern edge of the Yokota airspace, but only for three hours a day, - from 3pm to 7pm. 

The new routes quickly rose concerns, notably about noise pollution and aerodynamic safety at the arrival, both of which are directly related to each other. As a matter of fact, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism had initially planned that aircraft would approach the airstrips over Tōkyō at 3.0 degrees, which corresponds to the global standard angle. However, in order to reduce noise pollution and to ensure distance between commercial planes and the U.S. military aircraft that fly at lower altitudes, it subsequently decided to instruct pilots to come at 3.45 degrees, with 3 degrees permitted in case of rough weather. Aviation industry organisations such as the International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations criticised the decision, declaring that few other airports had adopted such a steep approach and that pilots may see Haneda Airport as one of the most difficult to land at.

In Spring 2020, the number of visitors to Japan from Overseas dropped remarkably (about 93% in March from a year earlier). Various airlines around the world have (partially) grounded planes, leading to a large number of international flights being cancelled and with the extension of the suspension of visas held by foreign nationals until the end of May (they had initially been suspended until the end of April) and the recent addition of 14 nations to the list of countries and territories that are subject to entry bans (bringing the total thereby to 87), the amount of passengers coming to the archipelago was these months significantly reduced. Therefore, the two new routes for Haneda Airport, introduced as foreseen on March 29, 2020, are operating yet with only about half of the flights maintained. Finally, with the postponement of the Tōkyō 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the hope to attract a high number of visitors this summer for the time definitely vanished. 

However, Tōkyō 2020 and increased tourism weren’t the only reasons for the introduction of the new flight routes for Haneda Airport: the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism believes more international flights will importantly help the capital bloom as a major international business hub in future. Thus, the Olympic and Paralympic Games seem to merely have served as a catalyst in the acceleration of the project and the new routes at Haneda Airport may be one (of many) examples of the event’s impact on the development of host cities’ infrastructures.

From my balcony, JAL aircraft, Shinjuku-ku, Tōkyō 2020/04/29 © Louise Claire Wagner

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