Businesses in Tokyo's Ginza district opposes helicopter service for hotel guests

Shop owners and business operators in Tokyo's Ginza district are petitioning against plans by a foreign-owned luxury hotel to offer helicopter services to and from airports, citing concerns of potential accidents as well as noise pollution.

They have collected around 10,000 signatures opposing the planned flight services for guests at The Peninsula Tokyo in Chiyoda Ward and submitted them to the upscale hotel's operator.

Looking to the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games as a business opportunity, the hotel operator is aiming to become a gateway for foreign visitors by providing guests with helicopter services to and from Narita Airport as well as other locations.

The Ginza area falls under the jurisdiction of the Chuo Ward Office, which has urged the hotel operator to rescind the plan.

Helicopter transportation services are approved if noise pollution standards are met. The Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry, which has authority to permit the service, has advised the hotel to seek the understanding of the local community.

Maximum of 260 flights

The Peninsula Tokyo is located in the Yurakucho district of Chiyoda Ward, adjacent to Ginza, and built a heliport on its roof 112 meters above ground when it opened in 2007. The heliport is currently registered for emergency uses such as for fires, but the hotel is now seeking permission for commercial use.

According to the hotel, two takeoff and landing routes are planned - a northwest route along an edge of the moat at the Imperial Palace and the other a southeast route over the Ginza district, with the use of either route to be determined based on wind direction.

Each year there will be a maximum of 260 flights, and helicopters will only stay on the roof for a few minutes since it will take off immediately after passengers board or depart, the hotel said.

Flight paths need to be clear of buildings that are taller than the 24-story hotel. "We didn't intentionally plan the route over Ginza," the hotel said, "but we can't secure routes in other directions."

The plan is being protested by Zen-Ginza-kai, an alliance of neighborhood and business associations in the district. In 1998, Chuo Ward and business operators in Ginza jointly established a "Ginza rule" that limits building height to 56 meters or less and that of signboards on roofs to 10 meters or less. Shinichi Tanizawa, the chairman of Zen-Ginza-kai, said the hotel is "going to use airspace over Ginza as its own runway by taking advantage of our years of urban planning efforts."

Petition at 10,000 signatures

Those opposing the plan have continued to grow since the plan was announced in June last year with 10,000 signatures collected so far. Some say the helicopter plan is extremely dangerous since Ginza has no emergency landing areas should the rotorcraft encounter trouble, while others claim the only ones to benefit from the service will be a marginal group of wealthy hotel guests, and there is no benefit to people who come to Ginza area.

In January, the Chuo Ward sent the hotel a written request under the names of the mayor and the assembly chair to abort the plan, part of which read: "The flight route runs over one of the world's busiest shopping and commercial districts, and will gravely impact the local community's safety and security with the possibility of noise pollution and risk of accidents."

The Tokyo metropolitan government has procedures in place for environmental assessment, which the hotel followed by flying a helicopter and measuring noise levels at 20 nearby locations in November last year. The hotel said it found that noise levels were lower at all points than aircraft noise standards set by the government.

"The measured figures are annual averages of noise measured in 24 hours," the opposing side said. "Figures tend to be lower when there are fewer takeoffs and landings, as is the case with helicopters at hotels. The actual noise from takeoffs and landings could be far worse."

The chairman of the company that runs Peninsula Hotels in 10 cities around the world came to Japan from Hong Kong in January. He held talks with business operators in Ginza, but their opinions remained far apart. The hotel plans to continue talks with the business operators.

"Relations with Ginza are very significant for us because many of our guests shop there," said Junjiro Yamashita, director of the hotel's liaison and risk management office. "But Tokyo's value toward the Tokyo Olympics will increase if guests heading to central Tokyo from airports have an option to use a helicopter. We'll explain our plan to local people as much as possible."

"Lots of people are worried about the risk of accidents," said an official at the Tokyo Regional Civil Aviation Bureau under the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry. "The hotel operator is expected to work harder to obtain the understanding of the local residents."

Akasaka's helicopter service

Ark Hills, a business facility complex in Tokyo's Akasaka district, is currently the only building in Tokyo that offers a commercial helicopter service to and from a rooftop heliport. The service is offered by a company affiliated with Mori Building Co., which manages the complex. An official at the company said the service to and from Narita Airport takes about 20 minutes and costs 270,000 yen (S$3,000), excluding tax per helicopter, which is capable of carrying up to five passengers.

The company also offers sightseeing tours, including one that takes visitors around Mt. Fuji, the official said.

The service was inaugurated in August 2009 and currently operates about 300 flights a year. The company said it only receives a few noise complaints a year because it takes various measures in consideration of local communities.