Sat, 27 Mar 1999

Realization of Haneda-Kimpo air route awaited

By Edward Neilan

TOKYO (JP): Has the time finally come for the takeoff of the Haneda (Japan)-to-Kimpo (South Korea) air shuttle?

Last week's summit meeting between South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi in Seoul produced a plenty of handshakes and nods of agreement.

A generally unified stance on what to do about mischievous and confused North Korea was agreed to and there was acceptance of the general thrust of United States policy toward Pyongyang.

Missing from the summit, however, was a single action or even a fresh slogan of cooperation that might kick-start the uncertain economies in both countries.

The Haneda-to-Kimpo air shuttle idea, which has been around a long time in Asia though virtually unknown outside the aviation industry in the West, is coming in for renewed discussion in the contest of convenience for travelers and stimulation of business. Two-way trade between Japan and South Korea was down last year. Korea sold US$11.87 billion worth of goods to Japan in 1998, a 20 percent drop from the previous year. Japan exported $16.28 billion to Korea, a whopping 41 percent decline.

Presently, international flights to and from Japan must use Narita Airport, more than one-hour's highway or train trip from downtown Tokyo. Add to that the flight time of about two hours in the air to Seoul and the chances of a one-day business trip become nil.

Haneda is nearer to downtown Tokyo and would have the advantage of allowing a traveler to fly the 750 miles to Seoul for a business lunch with a couple of hours to spare, and return to Tokyo. A shuttle feature could be instant check-in, purchase of tickets on board the aircraft and other marketing devices.

The main obstacle to realization of the Haneda-Kimpo Shuttle is the lack of imagination on the part of politicians and bureaucrats on both sides.

Officially, since the opening of Narita 21 years ago, Haneda ceased being an international airport except for charter flights and schedule flights to and from Taiwan, a political convenience.

Recent upgrades in facilities at Haneda have stimulated interest in the Haneda-Kimpo Shuttle. Security arguments mostly have been dismissed.

Such a route showcase improved ties between Korea and Japan. The latter colonized the Korean peninsula harshly in 1910-1945 and there are still 600,000 Korean residents of Japan.

Flights between Osaka and Fukuoka in Japan and Pusan and Seoul in Korea achieve the same effect as the proposed Haneda-Kimpo Shuttle but on much smaller scale.

A majority of the candidates in the April 11 election for Tokyo Metropolitan governorship have said opening Haneda to international flights is a good idea -- probably because their constituents want it. It is an example, in microcosm, of the kind of confidence-building project that is needed all over Asia.

Hideo Sawada, chairman of Skymark Airways, the first Japanese airline to start from scratch in 35 years, said the Haneda-Kimpo Shuttle is a wonderful idea. It is worth plunging into the Japanese bureaucracy to get approval.

Sawada battled the regulators to get his cut-rate airline onto the Tokyo-Osaka and Tokyo-Sapporo route, where load factors and traffic intensity make Washington-New York, New York-Boston and San Francisco-Los Angeles traffic look like statistics from a kiddieland theme park.

Japan Air Lines, All Nippon Airways, Korean Air and Asiana are all said to have begun studies on prospects of realization of the shuttle concept.

The Seoul-Tokyo route with shaved travel time would instantly become one of the world's most heavily traveled international sectors, with occupancy figures that would soon knock London- Paris out the box. There would also be an increase in the speed of delivery for small parcels, documents and other air cargo.

The symbolism of Korea and Japan cooperating would be enormous, particularly on the eve of the 2002 World Cup soccer series which they will jointly host.

The writer is a veteran Tokyo-based analyst of North Asian affairs and a media fellow at the Hoover Institution, the Stanford University.