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Colonel M. A. O'Halloran, Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan, commanding officer, left foreground, stands with his wife, interpreter and Aerial Port Manager Kevin Walsh on the tarmac Monday to see off 250 Japanese citizens. Base officials hope commercial flights will someday be available regularly at the base.

Colonel M. A. O'Halloran, Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station, Japan, commanding officer, left foreground, stands with his wife, interpreter and Aerial Port Manager Kevin Walsh on the tarmac Monday to see off 250 Japanese citizens. Base officials hope commercial flights will someday be available regularly at the base. (Travis J. Tritten / S&S)

IWAKUNI MARINE CORPS AIR STATION, Japan — The scene here Monday might bode well for Marines frustrated by long ground trips from far-away airports.

On Monday, about 250 Japanese citizens boarded a Boeing 747 parked on the base tarmac for a rare commercial flight to Hawaii.

Such commercial convenience isn’t available to Iwakuni Marines, who must uses taxis, buses and trains to get to airports at Hiroshima, Osaka or Fukuoka for domestic or international air travel.

But the flight Monday could be a preview of future commercial air service, according to base officials.

A dual-use agreement could someday allow commercial carriers to share the military runway and provide flight service to military personnel and civilians alike, meaning flights directly to the base for those with permanent change of station orders.

“Many air station residents look forward to the possibility of having future passenger flights here,” Maj. Guillermo Canedo said. “This flight [Monday] is an example of what future commercial air traffic could look like at MCAS Iwakuni.”

The idea is being considered at Yokota Air Base near Tokyo and is supported by the city government there. A viability study is expected later this month.

Meanwhile, at Misawa Air Base in northern Japan, U.S. Air Force and Navy aircraft share a runway with Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force and a small adjacent commercial airport.

Nothing is planned in Iwakuni, though the idea is resonating on base, Canedo said.

The lack of incoming commercial flights means Marines flying from the United States or elsewhere to Iwakuni must land in airports that are hours away, said Lt. Cmdr. George C. Estrada, who oversees the logistics of permanent changes of station at the base.

Commercial flight service would be a “big help,” especially during summer months when most of the transfers occur, Estrada said.

There is no permanent ground shuttle service to Hiroshima, Fukuoka, which is on the western tip of Kyushu, or Osaka, which is nearly halfway to Tokyo, he said.

Marines take trains and get off at wrong stops or show up at base with hundreds of dollars in taxi fares, Estrada said.

Until recently, that wasn’t the case. A contracted flight service dubbed the Patriot Express ferried Marines between Iwakuni and other Japanese bases, said Kevin Walsh, aerial port manager for Iwakuni.

The service provided a direct flight to the base but was discontinued in October 2006 because it was too expensive, Walsh said.

Currently, the airport handles only military and military-contracted flights, no commercial service, he said. The Japan Airlines flight Monday is only the fourth such flight from the base since 1992.

The air station does not handle much traffic by military standards, according to Walsh, making it unclear whether commercial air carriers such as Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways would be willing to run flights from Iwakuni.

Though the service would be very convenient for Marines in Iwakuni, commercial airlines would want to know regular flights would be mostly full, according to Walsh.

“They are not going to be big on a route if they have [for example] 25 percent usage,” he said. “All I can say is it’s going to be very advantageous” for the base.

Stars and Stripes reporters Vince Little, Jennifer Svan and Hana Kusumoto contributed to this story.

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