It is currently only known for its juicy watermelons, energy companies and martial arts heritage. So it should come as little surprise that the name “Ibaraki” currently provokes blank faces and raised eyebrows among 99.9 per cent of the population outside Japan. This, however, may soon change. Ibaraki, a prefecture a smudge northeast of Tokyo, is about to launch an ambitious bid to make its name considerably better known – by opening an airport.
On 11 March, Ibaraki Airport will open its doors and so join a list of 97 other regional airports in Japan, many as remote as they are unknown outside the country. This may not instantly spring to mind as groundbreaking news.
Ibaraki Airport, however, has no intention of slipping comfortably into the category of regional backwater: dubbing itself “Tokyo’s Secondary Airport”, it plans to become Japan’s first major low-cost airline hub for international and domestic flights.
It is well known that Tokyo already has two airports: Narita, the main international hub, located inconveniently in Chiba prefecture, and Haneda, set in the heart of the city and expanding operations this October with new international flights.
Ibaraki, in turn, is now keen to position itself as the “Stansted” (the departure point for many package holiday flights taking off from the UK) of Tokyo – and location is central to its plans. Only 80km northeast of the capital, it wants to tap into the market of the 19.8 million people living within a 100km radius of the new airport. Upon opening, it will launch limousine bus services from central Tokyo taking 85 minutes (no longer than the current slog of a journey to Narita). Free parking for cars will also be on offer.
Costs for airlines are also key: the airport will have significantly lower landing charges than its two big sister airports in Tokyo. Haneda currently tops Tokyo’s poll in terms of landing costs, with the average A330 class aircraft costing in the region of ¥552,000 (€4,500) compared with ¥430,330 for the same slot at Narita airport. Landing costs at Ibaraki Airport, however, will be even cheaper: ¥265,090.
But the icing on the aviation cake? Unlike at Narita and Haneda, bilateral talks will not be required for foreign airlines intending to serve Ibaraki. “Ibaraki Airport is the first airport in Japan designed to accommodate low cost carriers,” an airport spokesman tells Monocle. “It aims to become a secondary airport in the metropolitan area, like London’s Stansted airport.
Passengers need not be surprised if they also hear the roar of a military jet as they embark on their duty-free shopping: the new airport shares facilities with the Hyakuri Air Base, home to Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force. As a result, the new airport’s establishment was limited to the creation of an additional 2,700m runway (running parallel to a military runway) and a passenger terminal.
Its critics might cite the recent global economic crisis, the on-going air travel slump and the bloody bankruptcies of airlines such as JAL as testimony to the fact that it is not a good time to open an airport.
Ibaraki, however, is resolutely optimistic, with a small but solid foundation of inaugural flights: from 11 March, Asiana Airlines will operate a daily flight between Ibaraki and Seoul, with further flights planned to Busan later in the year.
On the domestic front, Japanese budget airline Skymark will fly daily between Ibaraki and Kobe from 16 April. A further 16 charter flights to destinations including Hawaii, Guam, Shanghai, Hainan Island, Taipei and Bali will also take place between March and May. And so there is little doubt that Ibaraki is determined to make its mark on the global map. Only time will tell, however, whether it is for its watermelons, energy companies and martial arts – or its new airport.