Seeking a Fair Deal on New Airport

Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer

KOBE — When a virtual Who’s Who of Japanese and foreign representatives on the business and governmental scenes got together not long ago for an unprecedented gathering, it was W. Joris Witkam who got in the memorable last word.

As the first-ever joint seminar on local development projects and their relation to the
Kansai International Airport wound to a close, the Kobe-based consul general for the Netherlands went on record as saying that the Kansai foreign community should not be expected to bear the burden of the high rates at the new airport.

He also told the 50 or so ranking participants of the seminar that the airport and related development projects ought to be seen “as a public service and not as a way to make more money — in other words, to keep the price as low as possible.”

Such unadorned public sentiment these days is a reflection of the leading role Witkam is playing as dean of the Kansai consular corps: that of seeking a fair shake for the foreign community during a critical period in the Kinki region’s development.

As undoubtedly the biggest project in that development scheme, the Kansai International Airport is often viewed by Witkam and his contemporaries with mixed emotions. On the one hand, they are enthusiastic about being right on the frontlines of the airport’s catalytic effects on Japanese foreign trade and tourism.

“I very much look forward to the new airport because, for me, the Kansai is the center of Japan,” Witkam said. “It will certainly give a new boost to economic development, trade development, foreign connections. Many countries will have a direct connection with Osaka, so that will be a real alternative to Narita (airport).”

On the other hand. there is a sense of disdain in foreign diplomatic and business circles over having to pay what may well turn out to be the most expensive airport landing and user fees in the world.

“In Europe, an airport is, of course, a company and they have to make a profit. But they also have to look ahead,” Witkam said. “If you start a new airport and you have no airlines flying in there, what can you do?

“You can put the prices as high as you like, but you cannot realize your dreams,” he said. “If you would like to realize your dreams, you have to make the airport accessible with reasonable rates.”

The proposed rate for the Kansai International Airport by the Transport Ministry and the airport company stands at ¥2,640 per ton for international flights, totaling about ¥1.04 million per jumbo jet landing there.

Recent negotiations in Osaka between the International Air Transport Association — which had proposed ¥2,200 per ton for international flights, or ¥868,000 per jumbo jet — and the airport company over reduction of the landing fees proved fruitless.

Nonetheless, the city and port of Kobe plan to get a piece of the action via maritime routes cutting through Osaka Bay to the offshore airport: Among the biggest projects being pushed at present are the Kobe City Air Terminal at Port Island and the Kobe Air Cargo Terminal at Rokko Island, which are expected to serve as vital links for passengers and freight, respectively.

“Kobe is in a unique situation in that it has the shortest, straightest connection with the Kansai International Airport over water,” Witkam noted. “So, they are quite right that they are going to exploit this and keep Kobe in the picture. But I think they should see it as a public service,” Witkam emphasized. “If you look at the prices of the Portliner (monorail) — ¥240 now to move up a few hundred meters — then I hope this is not symbolic of the new rates.”

Before the rates became a major issue, the Netherlands’ own KLM Royal Dutch Airlines was one of the first airlines to reserve landing rights at the Kansai International Airport, scheduling two flights a week to and from the airport. That number will rise to four by next year, in addition to the existing five KLM weekly flights to and from Narita.

The total number of overall flights at the Kansai airport stands at 63 domestic flights a day and about 300 international flights a week from among 44 nations, with negotiations continuing in China and the United States.

To avoid the kind of past inconveniences at Osaka International Airport and to iron out matters such as immigration, customs and access of visitors and VIPs to the new airport, Witkam set up an ad-hoc committee among his fellow diplomats in Kansai to make their needs known directly to the airport authorities, ministries and other organizations overseeing the new airport’s infrastructure and logistics.

Though he is mum on the details of the committee’s contacts with such officials on the Japanese side, Witkam does say that he is happy with the results.

As well he should be. From his three-window office on the 20th floor of the Boeki Center Building in downtown Kobe, Witkam is in a position to literally watch the future unfold all around him: along the Rokko mountain range do the north, the Suma/Akashi coastline to the west and to the south amid the sprawling waterfront of Kobe and Osaka Bay.

When he assumed his post in this port city in 1990, the 55-year-old Witkam carried on a tradition of official relations between Japan and the Netherlands that dates back to the 1600s. He brought with him experience from eight other countries, including postings in Jakarta, Washington D.C., Brussels and Dakar, Senegal.

When he leaves Japan next summer for his next posting, he will no doubt fly out of the Kansai International Airport with the satisfaction of knowing he has made the Kansai foreign community’s voice heard loud and clear amid all the hype and hoopla over the nation’s first 24-hour commercial airport.

“We are confident that at least we succeeded to make it a common problem — and not only our problem. And that’s something. Psychologically speaking, it was very important,” he said.