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    It takes a long time to get over there / Nearly seven hours in the air

    Japan’s latest close shave with air travel disaster: two passenger jets (a KLM Boeing 777 and an Asiana Airlines A321) ending up facing each other from opposite ends of a runway at Narita Airport. The KLM plane was just landing, and the Asiana plane was about to take off. Takeoff was aborted, naturally, and the runway shut down for a while. A few years ago, air traffic controllers engaged in a comedy of errors (a comedy because there was no accident, but 700 people’s lives hung in the balance), mistakenly guiding a JAL 747 and a JAL DC9 closer together, rather than farther apart, so that they passed each other at a midair distance of 30 feet. Shintaro Ishihara, Governor of Tokyo and famed xenophobe, blamed the air traffic patterns necessitated by US military presence in the area. And hey, that could be a factor.

    But it’s also true that Narita Airport is old, tiny, unwieldy, and in the middle of bloody nowhere. It takes an hour and a half to get there by express train from central Tokyo. If you’re coming in by air, landing requires all kinds of corkscrewish turn-while-descending maneuvers, especially fun during the summer, when the heat and humidity make turbulence a given. The waits for takeoff are ages long, even if you fly most-favored carriers JAL (mine) or ANA (Funny thing about that name: it stands for the English All Nippon Airways. The Japanese pronounce it “Ay-En-Ay,” but of course, to a native English speaker it looks like Ana, pronounced like the Spanish form of Anne. The funny thing is that ana 穴 in Japanese means “hole,” which when plastered on the tail fin of an airliner has a subtle but unsettling suggestion of augering in hard. Not exactly the image of effortless loft you’d think an airline would want to project, but no one seems to mind. The fact that ANA hasn’t had a crash for thirty years probably helps). Like every other public facility in Japan–especially those that show its transportation system to foreign visitors–the Narita Airport Authority gets cash by the tankerful, so the place is always being resurfaced, repainted, and retiled. But the routing problems remain, so it seems likely that we’re going to keep having these nail-biting near-misses and eventually–though I hope I’m wrong–a real disaster when luck runs out.

    4 Responses to “It takes a long time to get over there / Nearly seven hours in the air”

    1. Kris says:

      Sorry to post about something not specifc to the content of your post, but didn’t this post show up on, like, Thursday (the 17th) AM in the US (Thursday (the 17th) PM in Japan?). I is confused – the date on the post is June 13th! I think maybe you time-warped when you went to Bali. Lemme know if you want to know which stocks to buy…we could make a bundle!

    2. BigFire says:

      So how’s flying to and from Kansai International Airport like? It is in the middle of Osaka Bay, so there shouldn’t be any obstruction.

    3. Sean says:

      *blink* But we’re already paid so handsomely.
      Anyway…yeah, good thing I don’t edit things for a living, or anything. I can only figure that I took an old post that I’d decided not to publish, wrote over it, and didn’t change the save date. I’ll fix it. Thanks for letting me know; who know’s whether I’d have caught it?

    4. Sean says:

      I’ve only used Kansai Intl. for domestic flights, but in feel it was very much like Haneda, which is right on Tokyo Bay and also seems to have its runways oriented so you don’t have to pinwheel down. That’s just how it felt, though; my stomach may have been having an unusually good day. (One of the most unforgettable sights of my life came a few years ago when we went to the observation deck on Landmark Tower in Yokohama. It was a very clear day, and you could see the planes coming into Haneda, lined up to land as if they were waiting at the DMV. They weren’t exactly nose to tail, but pretty much one was arriving per minute. It made you wonder what on earth they were going to do if one of them had an emergency.) It’s not just the location, though; Kansai was built pretty recently, so my understanding is that its traffic engineering is much better than both Haneda’s and Narita’s. Wouldn’t be hard. Of course, I’m in no position to get so discriminating: the largest city in my country is served by the mouth of hell that is JFK.