Ibaraki Airport fails to take off

Hub expands routes but struggles to land more budget carriers

MITO, Ibaraki Pref. (Kyodo) A year after opening as the third airport in the Tokyo metropolitan area, Ibaraki Airport is struggling to attract budget carriers as it seeks to find a niche for itself among the multitude of domestic airports.

Beginning with only one flight route, the airport in Ibaraki Prefecture has increased the number to five so far as it makes efforts to bring in low-cost carriers, or LCCs.

But the airport currently does not have any plans to open additional routes, although it aims to attract more LCCs with streamlined facilities well suited for budget airlines.

Ibaraki Airport opened on March 11 last year with a daily flight to and from Seoul by South Korea’s Asiana Airlines.

Located about 80 km northeast of the nation’s capital, it is farther from central Tokyo than the two other airports in the region — Narita International Airport, around 60 km to the east, and Haneda airport, within the city limits.

Unlike its two peers, Ibaraki Airport also lacks rail links and frequent shuttle bus services.

Trumpeting the airport’s inexpensive landing fees and other advantages, the prefectural government nonetheless has been actively seeking to attract airlines.

Last April, Skymark Airlines became the first domestic carrier to operate from the airport with a daily flight connecting Ibaraki and Kobe. It added two daily flights in February linking the airport with Sapporo and Nagoya.

Chinese budget carrier Spring Airlines also operates three flights per week between its home city of Shanghai and Ibaraki.

“Though people initially took a harsh view of the airport, they have begun to see it in a positive way,” said a prefectural official.

Despite the limited number of flights, the airport has succeeded in drawing many visitors, including those who come to see Air Self-Defense Force jets from the ASDF’s Hyakuri base in the city of Omitama, Ibaraki, which shares the airport.

The terminal building managed by the prefectural government has so far attracted 860,000 visitors, contributing to sales of restaurants and shops in the building.

“Ibaraki Airport is doing very well among regional airports that are seeing withdrawal of flights,” the official said.

But only 190,000 of the visitors are passengers bringing profits to the airport itself.

While the Ibaraki-Shanghai flights run at 80 percent capacity, the capacity on Ibaraki-Kobe flights has dropped to about 50 percent from about 80 percent when it started operations in April, the prefecture said.

Visits to the terminal building have also been sluggish recently, it said.

In a bid to pull in more passengers, the local government contacted about 10 budget carriers at an international gathering of LCCs in Singapore in late January, stressing its inexpensive landing fees, which are about half to two-thirds those at Haneda and Narita airports.

But competition has been intensifying, with an affiliate of AirAsia, one of the biggest low-cost carriers in Southeast Asia, starting a service connecting Kuala Lumpur and Haneda after the airport reopened for full-fledged international services in October.

Narita airport has started considering building a terminal exclusively for low-cost carriers to spur flights in the growing market, while Kagawa and Saga prefectures have been working to attract budget airlines.

“Ibaraki Airport has an advantage over other local governments as it is close to Tokyo and has the experience of successfully inviting Spring Airlines,” said Hajime Tozaki, professor at Waseda University specializing in transport policy.

“It needs to pay close attention to the efforts of other airports in attracting LCCs,” Tozaki said.