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YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — The United States and Japan have agreed to flexible use of Yokota’s airspace starting in September, lowering the altitude requirements by 2,000 feet for commercial aircraft departing Haneda Airport in Tokyo.

The move is expected to shorten routes and boost savings in jet fuel costs.

U.S. Forces Japan personnel also must identify additional portions of the airspace that could be returned to Japanese control by September 2008 — a necessary adjustment before a fourth runway is added at Haneda in 2009. The two sides plan to study potential redesigns this October.

Master Sgt. James McGrath, the 5th Air Force’s superintendent of air-traffic control and airspace, said the flexible-use deal affects the center of Yokota’s Radar Approach Control zone, which stretches 120 miles north-south and 50 miles east-west with mountainous terrain and complex, overlapping patterns. The change, affecting departures only, takes effect Sept. 26.

“It was an immediate step that could be taken now for the Haneda expansion,” McGrath said. “We haven’t discussed the specifics of any airspace return. We’re still in the redesign stage.”

Under flexible use, temporary control of certain airspace blocks will be transferred to the Tokyo Area Control Center in Tokorozawa instead of Yokota radar approach, said Marine Maj. Jeffrey Kawada, USFJ’s chief of current operations.

“We’ve redesigned the route to allow aircraft leaving Haneda to turn a little earlier,” said Senior Master Sgt. Art Griffenkranz, superintendent of aviation affairs for the 5th Air Force. “The climb rates are slightly reduced. It should result in fuel savings and shorter flight times for the commercial airliners.

“[But] we have to come to a consensus with [the Japanese Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport] that will effectively allow us to continue our missions and support the Haneda expansion,” he said. “A reduction of airspace could impact us and [the Japan Air Self-Defense Force], which is what we’re trying to avoid with the redesign.”

Michael Bishop, who heads aviation affairs for the 5th Air Force, said several misconceptions exist about Yokota airspace, including Japanese media reports of a “wall” around it.

According to USFJ, established procedures exist for civilian aircraft to receive permission for flyovers. Yokota granted 22,632 requests in 2005. The base also has adjusted its airspace five times since 1972 to accommodate Japan’s growing commercial aviation industry.

“We’ve worked with the Japanese on the modernization of airspace for many, many years,” Bishop said. “We’re consistent with helping to facilitate direct routes. It’s difficult to say we’ve roadblocked anything.”

U.S. military officials say they maintain a healthy relationship with counterparts on the Civil Aeronautics Subcommittee, which falls under the U.S.-Japan Joint Committee and makes decisions on airspace issues.

Griffenkranz said the United States and Japan also gave recent approval allowing civilian aircraft to fly through some training airspace above Misawa Air Base when it’s not being used by the military.

Lt. Gen. Bruce Wright, commander of USFJ and the 5th Air Force, said at a news conference Wednesday that air space modifications are part of “common strategic objectives” between the two nations and have not compromised U.S. operational capabilities. The U.S. military uses only about 10 percent of all Japanese airspace, he added.

“It’s a relatively small amount,” he said. “We’ve adjusted as necessary to balance our important bilateral training requirements with commercial needs, always looking to improve the safety of both military and civilian aircraft.”

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