DESPITE PLANNED AIRPORT NEARBY, KOBE SEEKS ITS OWN FACILITY

DESPITE PLANNED AIRPORT NEARBY, KOBE SEEKS ITS OWN FACILITY

Just 10 months before the ambitious Kansai International Airport is set to open on an artificial island in Osaka Bay, nearby Kobe City is pressing for its own airport.

As outlined, the Kobe airport will be built less than 20 miles north of the new international hub on an artificial island in the middle of Kobe harbor and used for domestic traffic. It will cost an estimated $3 billion and have a single 2,750-yard runway.But many Japanese airline officials doubt the commercial viability of another airport in southwest Japan given the proximity of Osaka Airport 20 miles southeast of Kobe.

"Who is going to fly to Kobe when it's much faster by Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo," said a senior official of a Japanese airline who requested anonymity. "Already there are many provincial airports in Japan with less than 10 landings and takeoffs a day."

Another problem is potential air traffic control confusion, given the proximity of the new Kansai Airport and the proposed Kobe airport.

Nevertheless, Japan's Transport Ministry has approved the project, and the finance ministry is expected to grant $250 million by the end of the fiscal year on March 31. The remaining $2.75 billion will be financed by local authorities.

"Once we get the national budget, we will go ahead with the environmental assessment," said Masahiro Kinoshita, an official in charge of port planning at Kobe City.

But Satoshi Sanukida, assistant professor of marine biology at Kobe University, dismisses local government environmental impact studies as "a sham."

"Their conclusions are written even before they start," Mr. Sanukida said. ''These reports always conclude with a sentence that 'environmental damages are considered minimal,' " said Mr. Sanukida, who fears damage to both Kobe and Osaka harbors.

Twenty years ago, environmentalists stopped a similar, but much bigger, plan for a new Kobe airport. After Kobe rejected the plan, building interests successfully shifted their focus to an artificial island in Osaka Bay.