Okinawa more than trebles its international air connectivity over past three years

Over the past three years Okinawa’s Naha Airport has more than trebled its international flight capacity, and it hopes that hosting next year’s Routes Asia will help attract additional foreign air links into the southernmost prefecture of Japan. In fact, since the start of the decade international departure seats have grown more than seven-fold, at a compound annual growth rate of 39.8 percent.

From an average of eight daily international flights offering around 3,000 two-way seats in 2013 the airport now has an average of 23 daily international services with a capacity of over 9,500 seats, including new direct links to Hangzhou, Nanjing, Shenyang and Tianjin in China and Kaohsiung in Taipei. This brings its scheduled international network to 12 destinations adding to its existing links to Beijing and Shanghai in China; Hong Kong; Taichung and Taipei in Taiwan; and Busan and Seoul in South Korea.

Alongside its new destinations, Okinawa Prefecture and the Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau have worked hard to boost capacity in its core international markets which alongside up to 48 daily flights into the Japanese capital (serving both Haneda and Narita airports) provide important connectivity options into wider markets.

It’s most connected international market is Taipei, with capacity to Taoyuan International Airport increasing 179.1 percent between 2013 and 2016 and notably EVA Air bringing additional regional and intercontinental connectivity from 2014 to the network offering already provided by China Airlines. Low-cost carriers Peach Aviation, Tigerair-Taiwan and Vanilla Air have also introduced flights supporting the strong local demand on the route.

Another long-standing partners is Asiana Airlines which provides global connections via Naha Airport’s second largest foreign gateway, Incheon Airport, serving Seoul in South Korea. The airline now mainly uses widebodied equipment in this market. Capacity in this market has grown 225.8 percent since 2013 with Korean Air significantly adding to the transfer opportunities with the debut of its own daily flight from May this year. Eastar Jet, Japan Air Commuter, Peach Aviation and T’way Airlines have all also introduced flights on this city pair since 2013.

Hong Kong International Airport is another key transit gateway, supporting the strong local traffic from the Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China and a market where capacity has grown 151.1 percent since 2013. Cathay Dragon (formerly Dragonair) provides strong connections into the Cathay Pacific Airways network, while Hong Kong Airlines also provides regional links onwards from Hong Kong and Peach Aviation supports the more price-sensitive passenger demographic.

Okinawa is also keen to take advantage of the growing Chinese outbound market and its network expansion across the country is expected to significantly grow Chinese arrivals and visitor spend in the years ahead. The flights of Air China from Beijing (introduced in 2012) and China Eastern’s longer-running Shanghai flight also provide important hub connections. The latter’s route has grown over the latest decade from being operated using mainly Airbus A319s to now being flown by larger A321 equipment and A330 widebodies.

Okinawa is one of the most popular leisure destinations in Japan - more than seven million tourists travel there every year to enjoy the subtropical climate, tranquil beaches, UNESCO World Heritage Sites and unique culture. “Okinawa is a destination on the rise. The prefecture forms the southern-most islands of Japan which attract the world’s travel industry,” said Takeshi Onaga, the Okinawa Prefectural Government Governor.

Investment in local infrastructure means that Okinawa’s tourism industry will continue to grow. The regional Ishigaki Airport was replaced by New Ishigaki Airport in 2013 to provide a longer runway for larger aircraft. Naha Airport is carrying out terminal expansion works as part of its aim to become a gateway between Asia and Japan, and a second runway will be built by 2020.

A closer look at international passenger flows into Okinawa’s Naha Airport shows the importance of its hub links. While the majority of indirect traffic routes via Tokyo, more than 150,000 passengers in the past year (12 months to August 2016) transferred via one of its existing international network points, according to AirVision Market Intelligence data from Sabre Airline Solutions. The largest flows were via Taipei, Hong Kong and Shanghai.

There are significant opportunities for Okinawa to grow its international network. Bangkok, Honolulu, Los Angeles, Singapore and Manila are all unserved destinations with O&D demand of more than 10,000 two-way passengers during the past year (12 months to August 2016). There are also annual flows of over 5,000 passengers to San Diego, Seattle, Washington and San Francisco in the US; Denpasar in Indonesia; Xi’an in China and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.

The Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau has already gone some way to adding at least one of these destinations to its scheduled network with SilkAir, part of the Singapore Airline Group, this year operating a series of charter flights linking Okinawa with Singapore’s Changi International Airport during the summer. This series of seven return flights operated between June 1, 2016 and June 25, 2016 and followed a previous trial series between September 2014 and January 2015.

“We are excited about the potential of establishing more such flights on a regular basis, and eventually building a sustained travel demand that will drive the launch of scheduled passenger services on this route in the future,” said Lim Ching Kiat, senior vice-president for market development at Changi Airport Group, which alongside the Okinawa Prefecture Government supported the flights.

The Routes Asia event being held in Japan presents a big opportunity. Japan has the third highest GDP in the world of £3 trillion, as well a huge potential market – 120 million people reside in the country. Japan is aiming to serve as the gateway that ties together Asia and the rest of the world, and hosting the event will certainly play a role in helping the country to achieve this.

Richard Maslen

Richard Maslen has travelled across the globe to report on developments in the aviation sector as airlines and airports have continued to evolve and…