The Struggle of Narita Airport

Narita Airport is in a crossroads.

I feel like this has been on the mind of every Japan-based aviation guru for quite some time, but I believe now, with Tokyo’s 2020 Olympics arriving, and American carriers moving the bulk of their ops to Haneda, Narita Airport is truly arriving at the crossroads of its existence. What the NAA, Narita’s Airport Authority, does from hereon out will determine if the airport shall modernize or if it would possibly even close.

Narita’s existence is one of frustration for some segment of the Japanese populace, a headache for Japanese government officials, and for travelers up until the 90s, a headache in general, logistics-wise. Keisei operated the only rail service into NRT until 1991, when JR and Keisei opened a terminal in the basement of Terminal 1. Before then, the rail station was very far from Terminal 1. A monster of a transit headache.

Even before NRT opened its doors, the actual construction of the airfield was a politically polarizing nightmare. The planning process left out the actual landowners that owned the valuable farmland that NRT’s original plan of 5 runways was to sit upon. Couple that with a radical communist movement in the 60s and 70s, and you have the excessive security that was put into place up until 2015, and the wonky runway and taxiway layout we have right now.

This layout was published by Japan’s transport ministry in 1964. Notice the 5 runways, including 4 parallels and 1 crosswind.

This was never going to happen given the charged political environment. Protests, direct action, vandalism, and so many delays scaled that 5 runway, multiple-terminal layout down to just 1 each, and eventually, in 2002, the second runway and second terminal. Both runways are parallel. This is going to be an important factoid to remember.

Narita’s construction of the original B-runway was completed in 2002, but shorter than normal at 7100 feet. Most airports in Japan have a runway that’s 2500 meters, or 8202 feet. This runway could only operate smaller aircraft, and not the massive jumbo jets that are so commonly seen in Narita. Eventually in 2009 the runway was extended to the normal 2500 meters, but there’s still a provision in the blueprint for the runway to extend to 4000 meters, the length of original the A-runway, used to accommodate heavy flights.

In 2009, a Fedex MD11 plane landed in strong crosswinds, porpoised, and crashed alongside the main A-runway, killing both pilots. This prevented many heavy flights from landing at NRT due to the yet-to-be-finished extensions of the B runway, exposing one of the 2 major flaws at Narita. In 2013, an ANA Boeing 767 had an extremely tough landing in crosswinds, heavily damaging the airframe. There have been other reported incidents of hard landings during crosswinds at Narita. During heavy thunderstorms, crosswinds often cause long delays and diversions…I could think of 2 incidents this year where many flights had to be diverted from NRT to either Haneda, Nagoya, or Kansai, due to the prevailing crosswinds.

Note the word I’m using frequently–crosswinds. Narita’s configuration, seen below, is northwest-southeast, the runway’s headings being 160 and 340, thus their designation 16/34 Left and Right.

Narita Airport’s layout. Note the blueprint!

The lack of a crosswind runway is the first major flaw at Narita. The second, less dire in my opinion, but important, is the lack of a viable backup runway for an airport with such heavy operations.
Narita Airport sure has the space to build such facilities. The B-runway can be extended much further, and the broken up taxiway on the right that connects Terminal 2 and Terminal 1 was designed to be a runway. Notice, however, the pockets of weird curves along the taxiway. That’s where Japan’s government and the NAA need to take action, if they want to keep Narita as a viable airport.

These pockets are owned by protest groups. They built steel towers and other obstructions to prevent the construction of the crosswind runway and extension of the B runway.

From Wikipedia, a steel tower built by the protestors.

These towers and occupied land are preventing Narita from operating at its full capacity.

The rationale behind the protests, though, should not be overlooked as just a band of crazy communist hippies…the ‘new left’ as they were known as in the 60s was very much pro-Soviet, and saw NRT as a gateway for US troops to defend Japan and attack the USSR. They also saw the government expropriation of land as ignoring the plight of peasants. Understandable. However, in my honest opinion, ALL of this could’ve been avoided if the landowners were consulted and heavily compensated for their land. It’s that simple, opening up the massive coffers Japan’s government had during the Economic Miracle, and paying handsomely the landowners, giving them new land in a better location, and helping those who lived in the vicinity of NRT to build soundproofing. That would’ve solved, in my opinion, the only relevant problem that NRT faces. Now, the land formerly owned by farmers in NRT, is occupied by said “lets not call them crazy” communist protestors.

The crash of Fedex 80 in 2009, the damaged ANA plane in 2013, and massive disruptions that occur during adverse weather…or even slightly windy conditions, it once again convinces me that these protestors, propped up by the Japanese Communist Party, have no care for air safety. In my neighborhood, JCP members were protesting against the proposed realignment of the arrival paths into Haneda. These new arrival paths provide a safe approach into one of the busiest airports in the world, currently conducting departures and arrivals in busy, cramped, unsafe spiral patterns. The JCP is against air safety by being against the modernization of Narita and the changes of Haneda.

Enough politicizing, though…Narita is in a crossroads, nonetheless. The new “C” runway is to be another parallel…and further away from the main terminals. It’s beyond any sort of logic why they’d construct such a runway. Maybe it will be like the Polderbaan at Amsterdam, only used in 1 direction only.
The B runway will also be extended….to the north, instead of to the south, where convenient taxiing can happen.

Narita Airport’s website explains their future plans for the airport.

I understand why Delta decided to close their hub at NRT entirely…no need for such a hub at NRT when SEA is a big enough transpac hub for the airline and its partnerships with KAL at ICN. What’s troubling for NRT is UA moving the bulk of their flights to HND, away from potential domestic connections with Star Alliance partner ANA. American as well is investing heavily at HND. Both airports have a domestic hub with ANA and JAL, but still…. Haneda, with its new arrival routes and crosswind runways, is a perfect airport for Tokyo…close to the city, easy transit to and from the field, and built offshore. The airspace is crowded but it’s well managed. I think Narita is in a position right now to analyze and make the heavy decisions on what they should do to be able to be a viable airport for Tokyo.

If you’re flying from the USA from next year onward, you have pretty much no reason to utilize NRT Airport. Even onward connections to Southeast Asia, which NRT has been known for, will be handled better at HND or out of DL’s partnership with Korean at ICN…or even with the growth of Ultra-long-haul flights, stopovers won’t be needed at all. The Japanese civil aviation authorities need to decide whether or not Narita’s planned expansion is even necessary. The international terminal at HND has been and can be expanded further. Further runways could feasibly be built offshore. Japan’s declining population and slowing economy may not even necessitate a huge airport in Chiba. I know tourism is booming here but I predict post-2020 that’s going to bust. Tourism economies aren’t sustainable and can be handled at modular airports easily.

The ball is now in NAA’s court…what will they do once 2020 comes and goes? Narita needs to make harder decisions than what they’ve already made if they want to remain as “Japan’s international gateway.”

As I was looking through pictures for this article, I realized, aside from my A350 Flight last year, the last time I flew Delta into Narita was in 2016…Delta doesn’t operate the 747 anymore. If I flew into Narita it was either on JAL, American or ANA…all my other Delta flights were out of Haneda…goes to show how important Haneda is these days.

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