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Air time: Special Narita Airport tour gets visitors up close and personal with aircraft

Participants on a special tour enjoy airplane meals and take photos from the rooftop of a building beside a runway at Narita International Airport in Chiba Prefecture on Nov. 21, 2021. (Mainichi/Tadakazu Nakamura)

NARITA, Chiba -- A special tour giving visitors prime views of airplanes from buses and usually off-limits areas of the tarmac is drawing aviation fans to Narita International Airport east of Tokyo.

    The sight of a passenger jet, either inside or out, has been a rare occurrence for most of us for more than a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. This tour however, gets people a close look at aircraft during takeoff and landing, as well as planes parked on the tarmac. One participant said they hope that next year, they will actually be able to get on an airplane going somewhere.

    During the tour, we got off a bus to find ourselves only some 300 meters from the runway, with nothing between us and it. The air filled with the thunder of engine noise every time an aircraft took off or landed. Participants could be heard saying, "It's amazing," as they snapped photos of the planes. When they landed, children waved and cried, "They're here!"

    After the 19 participants presented their IDs and were checked for explosives, a bus brought us to an off-limits area next to the terminal, where we saw parked aircraft from different countries, decorated in myriad colors. Our guide, a curator from the Museum of Aeronautical Sciences, was full of interesting bits of aircraft information, like, "Cargo aircraft don't have windows like the ones you see on passenger planes," and "Right now, fuel is being pumped into the wing fuel tanks."

    During the bus tour, participants crowded close to the windows, pointing at rare aircraft, including a group of sea-turtle themed Airbus A380 planes in blue, green and orange, belonging to All Nippon Airways Co. (ANA).

    Before going around the airport on the bus, we were treated to in-flight meals of Swiss-style stewed beef, smoked salmon, cheese, bread, pudding and coffee, while watching planes from the rooftop of a building at the side of a runway.

    The special tours, launched in April this year, are arranged by Greenport Agency Co., a group company of Narita International Airport Co., whose earnings dropped drastically as passenger numbers plummeted due to the coronavirus pandemic. The tours were suspended for coronavirus states of emergency and quasi-emergency, but resumed on Oct. 22.

    The bus tour costs around 20,000 yen, or roughly $180, and the activities vary depending on the day, including dining at nearby restaurants, strawberry picking, and visits to airport limousine bus depots. Koji Osawa, chief of Greenport Agency's travel business section, said, "We'd like to make it into a tour with a positive impact on airport-affiliated business hit hard by the pandemic."

    Jun Komachi, a 51-year-old company employee from Atsugi, Kanagawa Prefecture, who joined the tour said, "We got to go around places that can't usually be seen, and it was captivating," while his 13-year-old son Masaru said, "This made me want to ride an airplane. I want to become a pilot and fly these planes in the future."

    The special tours will continue to be held irregularly. The company is also discussing holding an event where visitors can walk along runways, which would be a first for the airport since its opening in 1978.

    (Japanese original by Tadakazu Nakamura, Narita Bureau)

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