The road to nowhere leads to Ibaraki Airport
The media has been buzzing about Ibaraki Airport, which opened for business last Thursday with one-count-’em-one flight from Seoul; that is, if you don’t count the “commemorative flight” from Ibaraki to Haneda, which we assume didn’t reach cruising altitude. A second daily flight will start next month between Ibaraki and Kobe on Skymark, which has already offered a nice deal to drum up business at the airport. If you take that flight and transfer to a Skymark flight to Naha, the entire trip will only cost you only ¥13,600.
Cheap! But one thing you always have to factor in when you fly anywhere, and especially in Japan, is the cost of getting to the airport. Despite the fact that the Ibaraki airport authorities are trying to sell their baby as the third airport in the Tokyo metropolitan area, it’s highly doubtful that anyone except Ibarakians (Ibarakiites?) will use it, and even that’s in doubt. Before it opened, the airport is projected to be ¥20 million in the red for the first year of operation. When it was being planned some 20 years ago it was estimated that 810,000 people a year would use it. Media have since reduced that number to 220,000, and the prefecture now only predicts 167,000.
If Ibaraki wants a peek at its future, it doesn’t have to look farther than 100 km away to Fukushima Airport, which for reasons nobody has ever explained satisfactorily, was also touted as a Tokyo metropolitan airport when it opened in 1993. The number of passengers has since dropped steadily and now it only offers three flights a day, and all to Seoul.
But if you do use Ibaraki, what will it cost? The shuttle bus from the nearest station, Ishioka on the JR Joban line, costs ¥600 one way and takes 40 minutes. From Mito there is also a shuttle bus, but that costs ¥1,100 and takes an hour and 16 minutes. If you actually take the PR seriously and use Ibaraki as an alternative to Haneda, bear in mind that the train from Ueno to Ishioka takes 126 minutes and costs ¥1,450, but you could conceivably take the super express that runs nonstop to Mito (a little more than an hour) and costs ¥3,510.
The main problem, of course, is that the airport was not built anywhere near a convenient train line, which means the best way to get there is by car. For the opening, the airport authorities have asked people not to drive there because they’re expecting traffic jams, and so the shuttle bus is free for the first week. They’re expecting huge numbers of people to come; not to use the facilities, of course, but to gawk. Obviously, there isn’t a whole lot of excitement in Ibaraki. However, to attract users on a long-term basis they’ve made parking free for as long as you leave your car there, and the lot holds a whopping 1,300 vehicles. If you don’t need to fly you can always go there and camp out.
And if you do that you’ll have the added satisfaction that you’re not contributing to the public corporations that run most of the airport parking lots in Japan. Though 90 percent of Japanese airports do not turn a profit, peripheral airport businesses, like parking facilities, are raking it in. Some 20 public corporations comprising 738 bureaucrats run parking concessions and together they make around ¥29 billion a year. Of these the euphemistically named Airport Environment Improvement Foundation makes the most, about ¥17 billion. It’s easy because the land these parking lots occupy is owned by the country and there’s no competition. They can charge whatever they want. The money they make goes into “improvements” like antenna maintenance, groundskeeping, replacing fire equipment, and other things that look good on paper. According to the Asahi Shimbun the top officials in the foundation are among the highest paid bureaucrats in the land ministry.