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NAA’s president and CEO, Makoto Natsume, talks to Joe Bates about Narita International Airport’s growth, development and expansion plans ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

With passenger traffic reaching an all-time high in 2017, a new 3,500m runway and extended operating hours for flight arrivals and departures recently receiving the green light, and the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo just around the corner, these are heady times for Narita International Airport.

Although the anticipated late 2020s opening date for the new runway means that it won’t come in time for the Olympics, the longer operating hours will play a crucial role in helping the gateway, and indeed the city of Tokyo, accommodate the tens of thousands of extra passengers and hundreds of additional flights that Narita expects to handle during the build up to, during and immediately after the summer games.

The planned expansion of its second runway, 16L/34R, which is set to be extended by 1,000 metres to 3,500m, is expected to be completed at the same time as the third runway.

The bigger picture, however, is that the airfield enhancements and longer operating hours – finally approved in mid-March 2018 by Japan’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism as well as Chiba Prefecture and local municipalities surrounding the airport – will actually extend the life of the airport by allowing it to grow and accommodate more passengers and international traffic in the future.

The measures – the airport’s operating hours are set to be extended by 2.5 hours a day so that flights will be able to take off and land from 5am to 12.30am – will help raise the number of aircraft movements annually at Narita from 300,000 to 500,000.

It is the first time the airport’s 6am to 11pm operating hours have been changed since its 1978 opening and, theoretically, should allow the gateway to handle up to 75 million passengers per annum.

If the projected growth rates prove accurate, the airport, which handled a record 40.7 million passengers (+4.3%) last year, is anticipated to reach this figure sometime between 2032 and 2048.

Makoto Natsume, president and CEO of airport operator, NAA, called the capacity enhancing decisions an “historic moment” for Narita, which is located about 60 kilometres from downtown Tokyo.

Talking about the difference the new runway and extended operating hours could make to Narita, Natsume told Asia-Pacific Airports (APA) magazine: “Approval for the third runway and the easing of night-time restrictions, could increase the airport’s capacity by at least 50%.”

Milestone year

Looking back at the last 12 months, Natsume describes 2017 as a good year with some “significant milestones”, which included handling more than 40 million passengers per annum for the first time.

He notes that in July the airport handled its one billionth passenger since opening and that NAA’s incentive packages for new routes led to the addition of a handful of new international services.

These included Mexico City (ANA), Shanghai (Jetstar Japan) and Melbourne and Kona (Japan Airlines), while Jetstar Japan also expanded its domestic network with the addition of a new service to Miyazaki.

The new routes mean that a total of 18 cities in Japan and 112 across the globe are currently served from Tokyo Narita, and the list will grow in 2018 with the launch of new services to Vienna (Austrian Airlines), Montréal (Air Canada) and Nadi (Fiji Airways).

Natsume also points out that the  airport introduced a number of new IT driven initiatives in 2017 that were designed to make using Narita quicker and easier for passengers.

And he believes that several new additions to Narita’s retail and food and beverage offerings will help boost passenger satisfaction levels and the airport’s commercial revenues.

“We have worked hard to expand non-aeronautical revenues while improving customer convenience and comfort through a number of different initiatives,” enthuses Natsume.

“These included the trial introduction in March of self-service bag drop kiosks for international flights at Terminal 1, which was a first in Japan. August saw the opening of new universal design toilets at Terminal 2 and a Visitor Service Centre at Terminal 1.

“We opened the first Arrivals duty-free shops at a Japanese airport from September, and a number of new duty-free outlets from November onwards that included Bottega Vaneta and some bookstores airside in Terminal 1.”


Traffic growth

The airport recorded its sixth successive year of air traffic growth in 2017, in the process exceeding the 250,000 aircraft movements mark for the first time.

Natsume attributes the upward traffic trends – Narita handled 251,639 aircraft movements in 2017 – to the airport’s expanding route network, and in particular the growing attraction of Japan to visitors from China, South Korea and Hong Kong.

And such is NAA’s confidence in the tourism and business appeal of Tokyo and Japan that it is predicting that Narita will handle 43 million passengers, 270,000 aircraft movements and 2.1 million tonnes of cargo in 2018.

Natsume says that open skies agreements and the Japanese government’s decision to relax the visa requirements for many foreign countries, in line with its goal of attracting 40 million overseas tourists annually by 2020 and 60 million by 2030, have boosted numbers.

He also reveals that Japan’s low-cost carriers (LCCs) have proved the catalyst for growth in the domestic market, with ANA subsidiary Vanilla Air, and Japan Airlines (JAL)owned Jetstar Japan, leading the way.

“On domestic routes, the recent rise of the LCCs has been striking, with Narita also cultivating new markets,” says Natsume. “We are conscious of them being a key partner supporting the growth of Narita. The full service carriers are still the dominant players in the domestic services and on short-haul flights in Asia, but both offer exceptional scope for expansion.

“Thanks in particular to LCCs based at Narita, the number of cities serviced by domestic routes operated from Narita Airport has grown from 9 in October 2011 to 18 today.”

Natsume believes that the LCCs have helped transform Japanese attitudes to air travel since entering the market in 2012, driving down air fares and encouraging more Japanese to travel than ever before.

Indeed, NAA built its own dedicated budget facility, Terminal 3, in a bid to boost its appeal to the LCCs, and the tactic appears to have worked as the complex, which opened on April 8, 2015, is now served by five budget carriers – Jetstar Airways, Jetstar Japan, Jeju Air, Spring Japan and Vanilla Air.

“Both domestic and international fares have become dramatically cheaper since the entry into the market of the LCCs, and this has uncovered a vast new demand for travel in Japan,” says Natsume.

“At Narita Airport, we expect the LCCs to form the core of the potential future expansion in domestic flights and short-haul routes in Asia.

“By becoming an LCC hub and seeking to expand the domestic network and short-haul routes in Asia, Narita is striving to further increase passenger numbers through stronger networks that integrate demand for transfers from regional flights to international services, as well for connecting flights to regional destinations in Japan, from the growing number of overseas visitors to Japan.”

The biggest airlines serving Tokyo Narita today in terms of market share are ANA, JAL, Jetstar Japan, Vanilla Air and United, while the most popular routes, based on aircraft movements, are Seoul Incheon, Sapporo New Chitose, Hong Kong, Taipei Taoyuan and Honolulu.

The major airline alliances are also well represented at Narita with Star Alliance (33%), oneworld (25%) and SkyTeam
(17%) all enjoying a healthy market share.

But it hasn’t been all good news for Narita as Natsume admits that the airport has experienced a decline in transfer passengers over recent years. NAA attributes the decline to “strategic shifts by airlines and increasing direct Asia-North America services by US airlines spurred on by advances in aircraft materials and rising aviation demand accompanying rapid economic growth in Asia’s major cities”.

Natsume, however, stresses that NAA is actively working to ensure that Tokyo Narita remains an important airport for US airlines and a key hub between North America and Asia.


High-tech airport

Narita’s reputation for operating a technologically advanced airport is probably well deserved, and Natsume reveals that there are two main drivers behind its IT philosophy – the desire to raise customer service standards and Japan’s declining birth rate.

“The growth in demand for air travel combined with Japan’s declining birth rate and aging population means that we anticipate difficulty in recruiting our future workforce,” says Natsume.

“In the circumstances, labour savings by automation and mechanisation will be an essential part of overcoming this problem. We plan to make use of IT to operate with a smaller workforce at Narita Airport.

“This will take the form of introducing automated check-in kiosks and bag drops, installing cutting-edge security screening equipment and using robots to provide passengers with assistance and information.

“We also plan to increasingly rely on innovation rather than conventional methods to enable passengers to travel with greater convenience and to provide a more valuable customer experience.”

He says that Narita International Airport will facilitate Fast Travel strategies and harness IT to improve safety, convenience and efficiency with the focus on five key areas – clear signage; common use self-service kiosks; common-use bag drops; smoother, more advanced security screening; and improved pre-boarding waiting environments.

And it will include robots, with trials of a handful of robotic technologies having already taken place at the airport. They include the use of HOSPI, an autonomous vehicle developed for the medical industry, that can move around buildings on its own making deliveries.

“NAA is collaborating with manufacturers on the testing and development of multi-lingual customer assistance robots equipped with artificial intelligence as well as mobile robots that will escort passengers to their desired facility,” says Natsume.

“Robots for security, cleaning and other activities are also being considered and we believe that Narita Airport will be able to demonstrate the world’s most advanced technology at home and abroad when it welcomes visitors to the nation in 2020.”



Although the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo is still a couple of years away, passengers passing through Narita’s Terminal 3 could be forgiven for thinking that they were already here courtesy of the innovative, ‘running track’ style interior design of the complex.

Indeed, colour coded tracks circuit the entire facility – red lanes are for arriving passengers and blue ones for departing visitors – and are designed to aid wayfinding and provide visitors with a “comfortable walking experience” through Narita’s LCC terminal.

A series of icons stencilled in the lanes provide additional information such as the distance to other terminals, directions to nearby restaurants and shops and where to find outside transport options.

And just like in real athletic stadiums, the running tracks are made of a rubber mulch, only in Narita’s case it has been used to make long walking distances more comfortable for passengers.

The running track design ensures something a little different at the airport’s newest terminal, which is fairly basic in its design and features based on the requirements of the LCCs.

As a result, the terminal has no moving walkways or illuminated signs other than FIDS boards and is quite minimalistic in its fixtures and fittings.

It is, however, certainly not lacking in style due to a number of trendy and comfortable seating areas, designed by Japanese homegoods brand MUJI, which NAA wanted to help create “chic simplicity” and a positive impression of the budget terminal.

“I would like to say that the Olympics were the inspiration for the interior design of the new terminal, but to be honest with you, it was all to do with budgets,” says Natsume.

“The focus on reducing the terminal’s costs necessitated a signage plan that did not rely on suspended illuminated signs, and given that the low ceiling reduces visibility, it was decided to use floor signage instead to provide clear guidance throughout the building.

“The advantage of the universally recognisable running track design is that anyone is able to instinctively find the right direction.”

These are exciting times for Tokyo Narita, and with recent events seemingly securing the mid to long-term future of the airport, it is definitely on the right track.

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