KADENA AIR BASE, Okinawa — The United States and Japan are close to an agreement that will revert control of Okinawa’s airspace to Japanese air traffic controllers.

Although the Japanese media is reporting that the date for complete turnover is 2007, both Japanese and American officials are keeping mum on specifics.

The Kadena long-range radar control system (RAPCON) controls the airspace within an 80-mile radius of Okinawa. All commercial, civilian and military aircraft rely on the Air Force’s radar when approaching the island. The controllers handle aircraft taking off and landing at Kadena, Futenma Marine Corps Air Station, Naha International Airport and two other small civilian airports on islands off Okinawa.

The bulk of Kadena’s RAPCON responsibility is tracking more than 300 civilian aircraft that take off and land daily at Naha. Once Japan builds its own RAPCON facility and trains its personnel, the turnover should be seamless, a Japanese official said.

They will take over long-range radar control, ceding responsibility for final approach to the local air traffic controllers.

Japan’s Civil Aviation Subcommittee and the U.S. military have been working on the turnover, said Masanori Suzuki, assistant chief of the Air Control Office of the Civil Aviation Bureau of the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport in Tokyo.

“However, an agreement is yet to be reached as to when the transfer is to take place,” he said.

“The transfer was agreed between then Minister of Foreign Affairs and Secretary of Defense William Cohen in March 2000,” he said.

“In that agreement, there was a condition to satisfy operational requirements of the military,” he said. “We are currently working closely with the military on how to satisfy those requirements.”

The Naha International Airport is the fifth-busiest airport in Japan, according to a spokesman for the transport ministry’s office in Naha.

“We have an average daily load of 260 arrival and departure flights of commercial aviation scheduled for December,” he said.

In 2003, a total of about 115,670 airplanes, military and commercial, used the airport. Only airports at Haneda, Narita, Fukuoka and Nagoya are busier.

A U.S. Forces Japan spokesman acknowledged that the issue is being discussed and probably will come up before the U.S.-Japan Joint Committee on Friday. However, he would not go into specifics.

“My understanding is that this subject goes back to a May 1972 Joint Committee Okinawa ATC (air traffic control) agreement by Japan and the United States supporting a single approach control facility to serve the airfields for Naha Airport and Kadena Air Base,” said Marine Maj. James Bell, deputy director of USFJ Public Affairs.

“I’m told this subject, typically called Kadena RAPCON reversion, has been making tremendous progress in recent months, so we’re hopeful that Friday’s Joint Committee meeting may yield an opportunity for us to take a step forward concerning Kadena RAPCON reversion.”

In November 1999, Japan pressed for control after a contractor accidentally sliced a radar cable on Kadena. In the 26 hours it took to make repairs, about 200 flights were delayed by 30 minutes or longer.

RAPCON enables the controllers to shorten the distance between planes making landing approaches to Naha International Airport. They are usually kept about four to six miles apart.

Without radar, the gap between planes is lengthened to about 81 miles, or intervals of 10 minutes or more, according to the Japan Transportation Ministry.

Since World War II, the U.S. military has controlled air traffic over Okinawa. When the prefecture was returned to Japan in 1972, U.S. and Japanese officials agreed to continue to let the United States control the air traffic for what was then termed a “provisional period,” according to Okinawa officials.

Okinawa officials are wary about the report that a RAPCON agreement is near.

Tadanobu Higa, director of the prefecture’s Military Affairs Office, said Japan should have been given control of Okinawa’s airspace 32 years ago.

“But, to this day, the return has not taken place,” he said. “We hope the agreement reached this time, which specifies the time of the return, is a step forward.

“However, our wish is the government also make an arrangement with the military so that the military operations would not take priority over commercial air traffic.”

And the agreement should not stop with air traffic, he added.

“A large portion of our sea is controlled by the military as training areas and on the land vast military bases occupy the island,” he said. “This is where the fundamental frustration of the people of Okinawa lies.

“We ask both Japanese and U.S. governments to make efforts to solve these problems one by one,” he said.

Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.

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