Nestled among the sun-dappled cornfields and greenhouses of the city of Omitama lies one of Japan’s newest airport facilities, the Ibaraki International Airport. But, unlike most other airports, Ibaraki Airport was built exclusively with Low Cost Carriers (LCCs) in mind, from the ground up. Not only does it offer some of the cheapest fares in Japan, its location and amenities boast of stream-lined and efficient design and ease-of-use, making it a highly attractive spot for travelers and locals alike.
The airport itself is built beside the twin runways that it shares with the JSDF Hyakuri Base, one of the key points that determined its origins. Thanks to the runways and control tower already in place for the air forces, the construction costs of Ibaraki airport were roughly half of what a similar size facility cost in Shizuoka. On top of which, as opposed to providing boarding gates like most airports, the innovative approach of using step-ramp trucks to board the aircraft right on the apron led to many attractive benefits for the aircraft carriers it has courted. This is because boarding gates cost money, to build, to operate, to maintain, all of which gets passed along to the carriers and finally to the customers through higher fares. Eliminating the boarding gate costs also means that the aircraft can swing along sideways on the apron instead of approaching the building nose-first; this reduces costs by avoiding the need for a vehicle to push back the aircraft onto the runway or extra engine idling prior to takeoff as the plane can simply turn back towards the runway on its own once boarding is complete. Finally, boarding gates normally mean departures are located on the second floor and arrivals are located on the first floor of a terminal, requiring twice the staff and equipment. No boarding gates meant the process could be streamlined onto one floor, leaving the remaining space available for duty free or food service shops.
Once you enter the terminal building everything is perfectly efficient. The police and a rental car shop at one end, souvenirs and local produce at the other; in the center lies the information booth with staff who speak multiple languages, while on either side stand automatic money exchanging machines and a paid internet terminal. Currently the airport has routes through Skymark Airlines and Spring Airlines, so there are counters set up for both of them; Asiana maintains a counter as well, although their flights have stopped temporarily since the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake. Check in closes 40 minutes prior to takeoff, but because passing through security takes less than 5 minutes for the most part there is no need to arrive an hour and half before your flight such as with Haneda or Narita. Once through security there is a pleasantly featured waiting room to relax in before you walk the 50 metres to the waiting aircraft. Arrivals are similarly streamlined, allowing for quick deplaning and baggage collection before exiting into the same lobby as you entered to depart.
Other attractive features include the free parking for those flying in or out, and the ability to ride a highway bus to Tokyo for only 500 yen, both of which are much cheaper than the major airports. There are lower airport usage fees too, only 500 yen per customer as opposed to the 2500 yen charged by Haneda or Narita, meaning your ticket is cheaper yet again. Also, for those who have an interest in aircraft, you can often catch sight of various fighter jets flying in and out of the Hyakuri base, and there are two older aircraft on display to the right of the terminal.
In fact, of the 1 million visitors to the airport in the last year, only 300 thousand were actually flying; the rest were visiting the airport just for fun! It’s easy to see why, as the upper floor is stocked with Korean merchandise and local delicacies such as the fabulous Omitama pudding, while the lower level sells goods from different regions every week; when we visited there was an Okinawa fair on, with plenty of tasty treats on display.
Currently Ibaraki Airport offers domestic flights to Hokkaido, Kobe, and Okinawa, and international flights to Shanghai, but they are in negotiations to open more routes in the near future. The Okinawa route, which was originally just for this summer, has now been extended to the end of the year, thanks to its high popularity, and the Shanghai route not only increased from 3 to 6 days a week but also became regular service as opposed to the charter service it was offering before. Thanks to its high-quality service and features Ibaraki Airport was even named Low Cost Airport of the Year last year, but they are working hard to make sure the trend to excellence continues this year as well.
Whether you intend on visiting Rokkakudo, Nikko, or Tokyo, Ibaraki Airport is close, cheap, and charmingly appointed.