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High-speed jetfoils face difficult future in Japan due to high replacement costs

The "Venus 2" jetfoil operated by Kyushu Yusen Corp. is seen entering the Port of Hakata in Higashi Ward, Fukuoka, on Oct. 22, 2019. (Mainichi/Kimiya Tanabe)

FUKUOKA -- High-speed jetfoil ferries, which connect remote islands with mainland Japan, are facing difficulties surviving. The estimated durable life of many of these vessels is nearing an end or has passed, but their operators cannot afford to build new vessels due to their high costs -- some 5 billion yen each.

Local bodies governing remote islands fear that the abolition of the high-speed boats could accelerate their population decline and economic downturn, and are asking the national government for financial assistance. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism has launched a survey into the situation concerning jetfoils -- the first move of its kind by the ministry.

Six shipping companies are currently operating 18 jetfoils on six routes across Japan, according to the transport ministry and other sources. The life expectancy of such vessels is estimated at 35 years after they are built, although there is no legally defined lifespan.

The oldest such vessel, "Toppy 7," operated by the Kagoshima-based Taneyaku Jetfoil Co. on its Kagoshima-Tanegashima-Yakushima route in southwestern Japan was built 41 years ago. Another jetfoil, "Ginga," operated by Sado Steam Ship Co. on the Niigata-Sado route in the Sea of Japan, was manufactured some 39 years ago.

The durable life of many other such vessels is nearing an end or has concluded, so their operators are trying to prolong their use by thoroughly examining them during regular inspections to ensure safety.

Jetfoils, which are faster than regular high-speed boats, are built utilizing aircraft technology, and the production of one such vessel costs some 5 billion yen. However, jetfoil operators, which are in the red because the number of passengers is declining as a result of the depopulation of remote islands and other factors, cannot afford to buy new ones.

"If the situation remains unchanged, we have no choice but to switch to regular high-speed boats," lamented an official of a western Japan shipping company.

The national government extends no-interest loans to cover 45% of the cost of building a new jetfoil on condition that a local body provides financial assistance for the production. Tokai Kisen Co., which operates four such boats between Tokyo and Izu Oshima Island south of the capital, used the system to replace a 38-year-old vessel after receiving some 2.3 billion yen in subsidies from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and will put it into service as early as next year. However, it remains to be seen if Tokai Kisen can replace the three other vessels using the system. Other local governments have difficulties extending financial assistance for the production of new jetfoils because of budgetary restrictions.

There are also fears that the knowledge to build jetfoils could be lost. "Unless we receive (new) orders for the production of jetfoils over the next several years, our ability to pass down knowledge to manufacture such vessels could vanish," said an official of Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd., the only shipbuilding company in the world that has the technology to build jetfoils.

Jetfoils are faster than regular high-speed boats and ferries, and their fares are lower than those of flights. An association to revitalize the economies of remote islands, comprising local bodies governing such islands, has asked the national government to create a system to help build jetfoils.

In response, the transport ministry launched a survey in June among four companies in the southwestern main island of Kyushu operating many jetfoil routes as well as seven municipalities in three prefectures in Kyushu about the current situation. The ministry is asking these entities about the effects of jetfoil operations on the revitalization of their local economies and their intentions to update their jetfoils, and plans to compile a report by March 2020.

First developed by Boeing Co. in 1974, jetfoils can travel at a maximum speed of about 80 kilometers per hour, faster than conventional high-speed ships that navigate at about 50 kph. In Japan, Sado Steam Ship Co. became the first company to introduce jetfoils in 1977. Currently, there are only about 35 jetfoils in use across the world, of which 21 are operated by Japanese shipping companies on seven routes in the country and abroad. After taking over licensing from Boeing in 1987, Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industries Ltd. became the world's only company that possesses the technology to build jetfoils.

(Japanese original by Taiki Asakawa, Kyushu Business News Department)

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