OSAKA, Japan — Just six years after its completion, Japan’s second-largest airport is way ahead of expectations in one respect: It is sinking into the ocean much faster than planned.
Spread out on an artificial island that cost $17 billion to build, the much-touted gateway to western Japan is settling at a pace 44 years ahead of schedule. Experts claim that everything is under control, but their words are failing to check growing alarm and anger.
"How much longer will this last?" opposition lawmaker Yoshiaki Takagi asked at a recent session of Parliament’s transportation committee. "This raises questions about the airport’s safety, and its credibility."
Kansai International Airport opened in the bay off Osaka, Japan’s second-largest city, in 1994 after nearly seven years of construction. It has become a major Asian transportation hub, handling nearly 20 million passengers last year.
The airport was designed to provide relief for passengers previously obliged to use Tokyo’s airport, which is 40 miles from the capital and where separate facilities for international and domestic flights create headaches for travelers.
The Kansai airport handles both domestic and international flights and is convenient to Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto.
Few would call it a success story, however. Building the airport cost twice what was originally projected, and it has yet to post a profit: In fiscal 1999, it lost $1.4 billion.
Creating the 1,275-acre island in an area notorious for earthquakes presented special technological challenges. The year after it opened, Kobe and some parts of Osaka were flattened by a quake. To the surprise of many, the airport suffered minimal damage.
But because the airport sits on relatively soft ground, officials knew it would sink — originally estimating the facility would settle no more than 38 feet over 50 years.
They were way off.
The airport had sunk that much by last December, even though its opening was delayed a year so thousands of tons of additional gravel could be used to stabilize the structure.
The problem is worst around the island’s center, site of key airport facilities. Of the airport’s 17 monitoring sites, five, including the main terminal and part of its 3,850-yard runway, have reached or exceeded their 50-year sinking projection.
The terminal is eight inches lower than it was expected to sink after 50 years. Hydraulic jacks used to lift columns correcting the tilt of the terminal building have already been made longer because the terminal has sagged so much that the jacks’ 12-inch reserve length had been used up.
In what they hope will be the final "precautionary measure," $252 million is being sought to build underground walls to prevent water from seeping into the terminal buildings and refueling tanks.
"The crucial part of the airport is inside the terminal’s basement, and the entire airport stops functioning if water seeps in there," Hayashi said.
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