Kansai International Airport, known in short as KIX, is an offshore airport built on a man-made island off the southern shores of Osaka Bay. The airport was designed to serve as an aviation hub for much of western Japan, the region which during the second half of last century was increasingly falling behind Tokyo in all economic indicators. Hence, a much needed economic stimulation was also a main factor that prompted local political and business leadership to go for a new airport.
It was more because the old Osaka International Airport located in the densely populated Itami suburb of the city had already lost much of its earlier edge due to the difficulty of its expansion. Meanwhile, as Narita International Airport had been burdened with protests against land acquisition as well as lawsuits for causing noise pollution ever since the airport became operational in early 1980s, planners for a new airport in Kansai region preferred an offshore one that would be operational round the clock and also avoid any possible conflict arising from land acquisition or noise pollution.
A 4-km long and 2.5-km wide island was planned right on Osaka Bay and land-filling works began in full swing right after the decision was made. In structural designing, engineers needed to overcome the high risk of earthquakes and typhoons. Construction work finally started in 1987 and it took almost seven years to complete the work. Meanwhile, Japanese economy had plunged from a glaring bubble high to rock bottom, signaling difficult days ahead for the new airport.
Despite such a gloomy atmosphere of economic slowdown resulting from the collapse of bubble economy, KIX was opened in September 1994. It had taken a number of years for the airport to shake off the slow-pick-up of stage of early days. KIX has now established itself firmly as a major aviation hub of Japan that serves close to 30 million passengers a year and the offshore airport is regarded as one of the 10 civil engineering achievements of the 20th century.
Less than four months after the opening of KIX, Kansai region was hit by a massive earthquake that caused widespread damages around Kobe area, which is not far from the airport. However, the new offshore airport could prove successfully its resilient capacity as no significant damage was recorded. As a result, a near flawless operation of the airport continued since then; until a powerful typhoon named Jebi hit Kansai region on September 4 this year. Cyclone Jebi caused significant damage to the airport, resulting in closure of its operation for an indefinite period. One of the two runways of the airport was almost entirely flooded, whereas in cargo warehouse roofs were ripped apart by strong wind resulting in damages of storage facilities as well as some of the goods stored in the facilities.
The already bad situation was complicated further when a tanker drifted by strong wind crashed on the bridge connecting road and railway tracks with the airport, resulting in the closure of rail and road communication with the mainland. More than 8,000 people, including airport staff were stranded at terminal buildings and it was not until the next day with the partial opening of the road linkage that special busses were arranged for evacuating the stranded.
Initial priority was on the safe evacuation of the stranded people and with the completion of that important task concerned authorities were able to give full attention to early resumption of airport functioning. It was expected at the beginning that a 2 to 3 months time-frame might be required for the airport to return to its normal functioning. The ministry of land, infrastructure, transport and tourism launched an ‘early recovery plan for KIX’ three days after the typhoon and this was quickly followed by airport authorities’ own recovery plan. Meanwhile, Central Japan International Airport located in Aichi prefecture and Narita International Airport dispatched teams of technical expertise along with equipments to extend helping hands for KIX recovery.
Due to relentless efforts of all concerned parties, partial operation of the airport could be resumed just 5 days after the typhoon and the southern area of terminal 1 was declared operational on September 14. This was followed a week later by the full restoration of terminal 1. Meanwhile, railway service resumed operation on September 18 and thus bringing the journey to the airport back to normal. By then cargo area of the airport too gradually resumed its normal service. The cargo area was submerged completely when typhoon Jebi hit the airport, resulting in damages of food items and medical products that need special preservation condition with controlled temperature. 6 to 8 meter high flood water disrupted electric supply system and most of the temperature control switch boards stopped working. This experience had prompted the authorities to learn from the disaster and all the switch boards have now been shifted to a higher level as a precautionary measure against any future calamity.
The quick recovery of Kansai International Airport has been seen by many in Japan as a unique example of what can be achieved through planned initiatives and a coordinated move by different parties involved. Initial assumption of most of those involved in the work had been at least a month or more. But in reality the target was achieved within a much shorter period. A number of new initiatives are now under way for making the airport more disaster resistant. Strengthening the sea wall is one such initiative where government funding is expected.
KIX is again busy now as tourists, mostly from adjacent Asian countries, are flooding the region. A quick restoration of the airport also helped boosting the image of Kansai area as a thriving region of Japan that caters for the comfort of visitors by using properly country’s advanced technological excellence. This definitely had contributed in Osaka’s bid to win the right of holding the World Exposition in 2025. The annual meeting of the Bureau of World Exposition, held in Paris on September 25, has selected Osaka as the venue for the six-month long Expo 2015. This will be the second time for Osaka to hold the prestigious event after a gap of 55 years and is expected to boost region’s economy further.
(Tokyo, December 3, 2018)