Hovercraft to Return to Oita, Ferrying Passengers to Airport

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The first hovercraft delivered to Oita Prefecture is seen on Aug. 25.

A hovercraft passenger service connecting Oita to the airport is set to make a comeback after a 15-year hiatus following the prefectural government’s decision to reintroduce the vessels to improve airport access. The country’s sole hovercraft passenger service is to start in 2024, linking Oita Airport and the city in about 30 minutes. The British manufacturer delivered the first of the three crafts in late August.

The service will be the first outside of the U.K., according to the operator, and is also expected to become a tourist attraction due to its rarity.

Oita to acquire 3 hovercraft

Construction work was already underway by mid-August in the city’s Nishi-Oita area, the location of the planned hovercraft terminal, and will also include an observation deck.

“Passengers can travel more quickly to and from the airport, and they can also take in the scenery from the vessel, such as the steam from Beppu hot spring resorts,” said an official from the Oita prefectural government’s transportation policy division. “We hope many people will use the service, including businesspeople and tourists.”

The Oita prefectural government plans to acquire a total of three hovercraft from Griffon Hoverwork, based in the U.K.

A hovercraft is a vehicle that travels slightly above the surface of land or water by producing a current of air underneath it that supports it.

The craft is powered by two high-speed diesel engines, which are used for both floating and propulsion, and two propulsion propellers. Measuring at about 26 meters long, about 13 meters wide and about nine meters high, the craft can accommodate up to 80 passengers. Its top speed is 45 knots, or 83 kph.

The remaining two hovercraft are expected to be delivered by January. It will cost the prefecture about ¥4.2 billion to purchase the vessels and another ¥7.1 billion to build the terminal.

Improving airport access

Oita Airport was originally located within Oita but moved to Kunisaki City in the same prefecture in 1971. In the same year, a company funded by Oita Prefecture and Oita Kotsu, a bus operator in the prefecture, launched a hovercraft transportation service. Even though at its peak more than 400,000 passengers a year used the service, the company fell into debt due to a decline in users resulting from intensifying competition with bus services. The service was subsequently discontinued in 2009.

About 2 million passengers used Oita Airport in fiscal 2018 before the start of the coronavirus pandemic. But the airport has an accessibility issue as it takes about an hour to get to from central Oita, even by buses that use the expressway.

In 2018, then Oita Gov. Katsusada Hirose expressed his intention to set up a study group on how to enhance the airport’s accessibility, saying that it was not user-friendly. In 2020, the prefectural government decided to reintroduce hovercraft. It expects that about 300,000 to 400,000 people will use the service annually for business trips and other purposes.

Local residents have high expectations for the new service.

In 2021, Oita Prefecture projected that the service’s economic ripple effect would reach roughly ¥61.42 billion over the 20-year period from the start of the service.

Oita’s hovercraft fans also welcome the service’s revival.

“I really like the craft’s stylish hull. We’re really pleased that hovercraft will return,” said Daisuke Yufu, 46, who heads a group of hovercraft fans in the city.