The Yomiuri ShimbunThe government is expected to agree with the U.S. military on a plan to allow Japan to control air traffic for some passenger planes that fly through airspace currently controlled by the U.S. Yokota Air Base in Tokyo, in a move toward the operation of new routes into Tokyo’s Haneda Airport, sources told The Yomiuri Shimbun.
Aiming to realize the plan by the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, both sides are scheduled to confirm the agreement at a meeting of the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee — a bilateral body to consult over the operation of the Japan-U.S. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) — as early as this month, according to sources.
The Yokota Air Base is located in Fussa and neighboring municipalities in western Tokyo.
The so-called Yokota airspace controlled by the air base stretches over Tokyo and eight prefectures — Saitama, Tochigi, Gunma, Kanagawa, Shizuoka, Niigata, Nagano and Yamanashi — and ranges in altitude from about 2,400 meters to 7,000 meters. Based on the SOFA, the U.S. military controls Japan’s Self-Defense Forces and U.S. military aircraft flying in the airspace.
The Yokota airspace has been a stumbling block for Japan to increase the number of arrival and departure slots for international flights at Haneda Airport ahead of the Tokyo Games as the U.S.-controlled system makes it unable to freely fly passenger planes in the airspace. No regular flights to and from Haneda are currently operated through the airspace.
Tokyo intends to expand the number of airport slots by the Tokyo Games in the summer of 2020 after a bilateral agreement on the Yokota airspace is reached.
Eyeing a rise in foreign visitors to Japan during the Games, the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry plans to increase the annual number of daytime international arrivals and departures at Haneda from current levels of 60,000 to 99,000. Based on this plan, the ministry has drawn up a blueprint for new passenger flight routes over central areas of Tokyo that will supplement existing routes over Tokyo Bay.
The new routes will establish a four-hour window in the evening to allow international flights to fly over central Tokyo during southerly winds. As this proposal entails the possibility of passenger flights flying through the Yokota airspace for a few minutes — depending on such factors as weather and the runway to be used — the Japan-U.S. Joint Committee has had consultations over how to control the airspace.
In the talks, the U.S. military has insisted that the current U.S.-controlled system should be maintained to prevent possible confusion in air control, although it proposed allowing passenger flights to fly through the Yokota airspace. On its part, Tokyo called for setting up a Japanese-led control system to ensure smooth landings of passenger planes.
As a result of the talks, the U.S. military is leaning toward a decision to allow for Japanese air traffic control on such conditions as passenger planes flying through the airspace only for a short period in the afternoon, according to the sources. Japan is expected to continue controlling the air traffic even after the Games.