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TOKYO — U.S. Forces Japan and 5th Air Force officials announced Monday that Yokota Air Base will begin allowing flexible use of its airspace for civilian commercial aircraft starting Thursday.

Flexible use — the first initiative to be completed under the agreement finalized in May to realign U.S. forces in Japan — drops altitude requirements by 2,000 feet and will transfer air traffic control responsibility in certain airspace to Japanese authorities when not required by military use, according to Senior Master Sgt. Art Griffenkranz, 5th Air Force superintendent of aviation affairs.

The change allows commercial aircraft leaving Japan’s Haneda Airport to shorten their routes and save fuel costs. The agreement affects areas within Yokota’s Radar Approach Control Zone, an area that extends 120 miles north-south of the base and 50 miles east-west.

Flexible use was designed to be a quick fix for congested airspace used by commercial aircraft in Japan.

“Civil aviation can really see a tangible effect from this,” Griffenkranz said. “Every aircraft that goes through that corridor will save one minute.”

It doesn’t sound like much, but with 190 aircraft passing through the corridor each day, flexible use will save civil aviation 190 minutes of flight time a day and about 319,000 miles each year, he said.

For a longer-term solution, both sides are investigating the return of more airspace to Japanese civilian control in the next two years, to allow for a fourth runway at Haneda in 2009. A plan for that airspace redesign is expected next month.

The goal is finding pieces of airspace U.S. forces could return that would not impede U.S. or Japanese military air operations. The U.S. military uses about 10 percent of Japanese airspace, officials have said.

“We’re trying to protect everyone’s mission,” Griffenkranz said.

Advantages to flexible use

Here are some advantages to flexible use, according to 5th Air Force:

Miles savings

4.6 miles per aircraft.875 miles per day.319,226 miles per year.Time savings

1 minute per aircraft.190 minutes per day.69,350 minutes (1,155 hours) per year.Other advantages

Increases number of operations per hour.Increases the efficiency of the Air Traffic System.Reduces Japan Civil Aviation Bureau controller workload.— Stars and Stripes

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