(Adds details on U.S. base restricted airspace)
By Tim Kelly
TOKYO, Feb 25 (Reuters) - As Tokyo prepares to greet overseas visitors to the Olympic Games in July, some city residents are upset about the more than 100 low-flying jetliners a day that will bring them to the city.
From March 29, whenever a southerly wind blows over Japan’s capital, 45 passenger planes an hour will descend low over Tokyo on two new airport approach routes for up to three hours. They will fly as low as 300 meters (1,000 feet) above neighbourhoods near the city’s Haneda airport.
“There’s a lot of risk and little merit, few residents are happy,” said Kiwami Omura, who heads the Haneda Problem Solving Project, a group trying to unite opposition groups in Tokyo’s 23 wards. He said the government “is using the Olympics to push this plan, but the flights will continue when it’s over”.
The approach routes are part of a renewed push to expand air access to the world’s biggest metropolitan area. Aviation officials have struggled for decades to increase capacity in the face of fierce opposition to airport construction, including Tokyo’s other airport 80km (50 miles) away at Narita.
Giving impetus to a new aviation plan that will increase flights to Tokyo by a third to a million a year is part of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s drive to make inbound tourism an economic priority.
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike also wants to make her city more globally competitive as the rest of Japan struggles with population decline.
The new approach routes over central Tokyo will add 39,000 flights a year and, the government says, help boost Japan’s economy by around $6 billion. Japan Airlines Co Ltd, ANA and Delta Air Lines are among the airlines to most benefit from the increase in landing slots.
To open up the routes Japanese aviation officials had to gain permission from the U.S. military for commercial jets to pass through a portion of restricted airspace that surrounds Yokota Air Base in Western Tokyo.
Abe’s government in August said it had “gained the understanding” of Tokyo residents. Yet, lawmakers in Tokyo’s Shinagawa ward close to Haneda continue to oppose the plan, asking for more stringent noise and safety measures and a commitment to vary the routes.
“I believe the decision ignores what residents want,” Jin Matsubara, an independent lawmaker in Japan’s parliament, said ahead of a meeting with opposition group representatives. “My constituency is close to Haneda and the effect from noise and falling objects could be significant.”
Syota Suyama, an official at the Ministry of Land Infrastructure, Transport, said; “We are aware that we still need to reassure people.”
Omura and other activists will next month attempt to gather at least 7,000 signatures from Shinagawa residents, enough to allow them to ask the ward assembly to approve a referendum.
“Our aim is to get around 30,000, because that would show assembly members how much opposition there is,” said Omura.
Any referendum vote that rejected the new Haneda routes would not, however, be enough to reverse the decision.
“Residents don’t have power to halt it, the right to make that decision belongs with the transport minister,” Suyama said. (Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Ed Osmond)