- Mar 12th 2010, 13:45 by M.A. | BEIJING
IT ATTRACTED plenty of attention, but the opening this week of Japan’s 98th airport, in Ibaraki prefecture, offers little reason for celebration. Over-assiduous building of airports has become a symbol of Japan’s wasteful public-works spending, and the Democratic Party of Japan, which came to power last year, has not been alone in its criticism of the new addition.
Ibaraki is billed as Tokyo’s third airport, after Narita and Haneda, but that is a rather tenuous claim. It is to Tokyo what London Oxford airport is to London: distant. (Oxford’s site, rechristened to some derision last year, is around 60 miles from London; Ibaraki’s lies roughly 50 miles north of Tokyo.) It offers little relief to travellers tired of the 40-mile trek out of town to Narita. And the choice looks academic at the moment, since Ibaraki has attracted just one regular scheduled flight, from Seoul, with one to Kobe to be added in April. All of which raises the question: why was it built?
As The Economist recently wrote, airport construction in Japan has been stimulated in part by “fanciful traffic assumptions” dreamt up by civil servants seeking cushy retirement sinecures. Of the 75 Japanese airports that regularly do so, 67 published passenger-number projections for 2008 that turned out to be over-optimistic. Predictions made in 1998 that Ibaraki airport would attract 810,000 passengers a year have been adjusted to 200,000.
Still, some hope that Ibaraki could be Japan’s last commercial airport. With public debt approaching 200% of GDP, ministers have put a moratorium on new airport construction and promised not to force airlines to fly to the nation’s myriad hubs. This practice helped push Japan Airlines (JAL), which filed for bankruptcy in January, deeper under a mountain of debt. Thankfully, JAL executives say flights to Ibaraki are “out of the question“, and ANA, Japan’s other big carrier, is also keeping its distance. This, at least, is cause for some celebration.