Trip planners predict continued uncertainty in Japan

 - March 31, 2011, 5:15 AM

Last month, for the second time in a little over two years, an island nation was beset by a cataclysmic natural disaster that took thousands of lives. Unlike the 7.0 earthquake that destroyed Haiti’s capital Port au Prince and killed more than 300,000 people in January 2010, the disaster in Japan last month is still unfolding weeks later in ways that could affect the region for years to come.

On March 11 at 2:46 p.m. local time, the main island of Japan was rocked by a 9.0 earthquake, the most severe in the nation’s recorded history. Centered less than 100 miles off Honshu’s northeast coastline, the temblor triggered a tsunami that spared almost nothing in its path.

The breached integrity of the Fukushima Dai-ichi power complex–with its six nuclear reactors–took center stage in the disaster. Several times, emergency workers were forced to flee the failed plant as radiation levels spiked. Notams were issued for Fukushima’s airspace, establishing steadily widening no-fly zones around the crippled power plant.

During the first week, the U.S. was among several nations to suggest that its citizens evacuate Japan. The U.S. State Department through its embassy in Tokyo announced it would arrange for charter flights to evacuate U.S. citizens to “safe haven” locations in Asia where they would be able to book flights back home. Those who accepted the offer (aside from government workers, members of the military and their families) were required to reimburse the approximate cost of a commercial ticket to the safe location, at a later time.

According to information from aircraft tracking data provider FlightAware, in the first week after the disaster several business jets (most with blocked registration) departed from U.S. destinations for Japan, some leaving mere hours after news of the crisis spread. Matt Pahl, manager of international flight operations for Rockwell Collins Flight Information Systems (formerly Air Routing), reported an uptick in inquiries from his customers. “Some of our operators would never have planned to go to Japan when they went, or when they planned to go had it not been for the event that occurred,” he told AIN, describing two flights that left in the two days immediately following the disaster. “One was very short notice…12 to 15 hours from the time they notified us to the time they took off.” Pahl noted most of the inquiries his company fielded were from flight departments seeking to extract stranded company employees.

Spike in Charter Demand

With media reports depicting the devastation caused by the tsunami and following the specter of a nuclear meltdown, charter providers and brokers worldwide were fielding calls from thousands of people looking for flights to escape the country during that first chaotic week. “We definitely have seen an increase in inquiries,” said Ben Schusterman, president of Los Angeles-based charter broker ElJets, at the time. “We probably do something in Japan once a month or so, and we’ve had 25 to 30 inquiries.”

“We have seen a ten-fold increase in requests not only for charters but also for assistance in locating missing persons,” said Simon Wagstaff, chairman and CEO of ASA group, parent company of private lift provider JetCharter Asia. “We have had five or six requests for charters a day, from a turboprop to a 737 and everything in between.”

Andres Arboleda, director of marketing and operations at international broker Privé Jets, also experienced a dramatic increase in interest from the region. “It went through the roof,” he said, noting that many of the inquiries came from people unfamiliar with aircraft charter. “There are a lot of calls from unqualified people who are in panic mode and looking for all the options, but unfortunately it’s not something that everyone can afford.” Arboleda added that many of those inquiries were disqualified when the callers were informed that charter flights came at a substantial premium compared with commercial flights.

ElJets’ Schusterman was among those who noted a rise in the region’s charter prices as fear deepened. “I would say probably 30 percent above normal,” he told AIN. “Asia is expensive to charter to start with–way more expensive than the U.S.–but [operators’] prices have definitely increased and they are not even being shy about it.”

“Sadly, it has become apparent several unscrupulous operators have significantly increased their prices and are blatantly profiteering as a result of these dreadful circumstances,” said ASA’s Wagstaff, adding that some operators have refused to allow their aircraft to be chartered for evacuation flights.

Radiation Concerns

According to trip support provider Universal Weather & Aviation, concerns about sending aircraft to Japan might be warranted. The Houston-based company is urging its clients to check with their insurance providers regarding their coverage before planning any trips to Japan, in particular with respect to radiation exposure and their policy’s nuclear risks clause. According to a statement on the company’s website, “this clause essentially states that the insurance policy would not cover loss of, or destruction of, or damage to, any property of the insured or others, or any legal liability of, whatsoever nature arising from radioactive, toxic, explosive or other hazardous properties arising from the damage to the Japan nuclear power facilities.”

Concern about the possibility of radiation contamination is one of the uncertainties facing operators going not only to Japan, but those heading to the region in general. “Some operators asked us about the radiation impact at flight level, not necessarily on the ground,” said Rockwell Collins’s Pahl. “These are airplanes that are overflying the region and [operators] want to know if there are any reroutings because of the radiation.” As of press time, the answers to those queries underscored the unsettled nature of the situation. “Every indication we’ve had thus far is that there’s no impact up at 35,000 to 40,000 feet. It’s not at that point yet, depending upon what these reactors do,” Pahl told AIN. “It’s hard to say what may or may not happen. I don’t know if anybody knows that answer yet.”

In response to client requests, some trip support providers have begun providing wind analysis data. “I think aircraft contamination is going to be an issue, just flying into or through or over the area,” said Mike Ferguson, Jeppesen’s manager of international trip planning operations. “For some of our customers–people flying to other parts of Asia who generally have to transit the area–we’ve already done some wind modeling data for radiation. That’s the same thing we did last spring during the Icelandic volcano eruptions for wind plume and debris data, to keep them clear.”

By the end of the first week of the crisis, minute particles of radiation from the meltdown were being detected as far away as California. Two weeks after the tsunami, elevated levels of radiation were found in milk, ground water and locally grown vegetables in Japan.

One source in the business aviation industry in Japan reported a growing reluctance among pilots of foreign business jets to fly to Narita due to fears of elevated levels of radiation in the Tokyo region. According to Misao Nagae, general manager of Nakanihon Air Service’s international business aircraft enterprise division, those pilots who have made the trip typically spend less than one hour on the ground in Tokyo, unloading their passengers and then repositioning the airplane to either Nagoya or Kansai airports in western Japan.

“It’s extremely dynamic over there right now,” added Ferguson, noting that the uncertainty has deterred some scheduled flights from taking off. “We’ve had several trips going to the Japan area and even some into the China area that have cancelled, preferring to wait until we figure out what’s going on.” He noted that most airports in Japan, aside from those closest to the disaster zone, were functioning normally. In Tokyo, both Narita and Haneda International Airports closed briefly after the earthquake but soon resumed operations. Haneda, dedicated largely to government and relief flights, was closed to business aviation due to a lack of parking space, while Narita became a gathering point for thousands of tense travelers (ticketed or not) seeking a way out of the country. The woes of Sendai Airport, the closest major airport to the quake/tsunami’s ground zero, were graphically depicted in the media, as videos and photographs showed the extent of the flooding, which washed away cars and airport access roads and covered its runways in a thick layer of mud. The airport is described as closed in a Notam, and estimates for its return to normal operations ranged as far out as a year, yet little more than a week after the tsunami, military and local crews were able to clear enough debris to allow the first U.S. Air Force C-17s to land, bearing tons of humanitarian aid.

Unlike last year, when business aviation spearheaded the disaster-relief response to Port au Prince, circumstances in this case are different. Unlike in Haiti, where anything from a Cessna Caravan on up was pressed into service hauling relief supplies and first responders on the short hop from Florida, the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean has served to severely limit the types of aircraft that can be used, and the precious relief supplies they can carry. Industry response charity Aerobridge (formerly Corporate Aviation Responding in Emergencies or Care) is positioning itself as more of a supply-chain manager for emergency supplies and first responders, rather than a direct delivery facilitator. “The air transportation [in this case] is reliant on air carriers,” said Aerobridge president Marianne Stevenson. “Our official stance is that we do not promote anybody traveling over there at this time. If a corporation is going to send an aircraft anyway, we do ask that they donate some available space, either seats or cargo space, because that is maximizing the asset.” Stevenson noted that several Asian carriers have offered free or discounted space to accommodate requested personnel and cargo.

Justifiably overshadowed by the uncertainty at the nuclear powerplant, and the suffering of those affected directly by the tsunami, is the impact on daily life experienced by those beyond the immediate scope of the disaster. The loss of generating power at the Fukushima power plant has imposed cutbacks in energy consumption on much of the region, including Tokyo, which has faced with rolling blackouts and reduced train schedules. That has affected the transportation of goods and workers. “If you are traveling to Tokyo, go only if it is deemed absolutely essential,” said Chris Buchholz, Universal Weather & Aviation’s president of Asia-Pacific. “We’ve had a lot of queries about ground transportation, hotels, and the availability of jet and car fuel availability and ground handling,” he said, noting that travelers heading to Tokyo and the surrounding regions should come prepared to face the unexpected. “When it comes to jet fuel, it is available at most airports in Japan; however, because things could change at any time, we do have customers who are tankering fuel when they can.”

With confusion and doubt shaping the aftermath of the earthquake, it seems uncertainty will remain the only constant for operations in the region for the foreseeable future. Buchholz told AIN that obtaining accurate information is crucial to those planning to visit Japan. “We advise everybody to pay close attention to the news and to keep abreast of any new developments, and if uncertain, of course to contact their trip support provider,” he said. “We do expect more challenges before things get better.” o