Corporate flights gradually return to Japan

 - April 28, 2011, 8:20 AM

Despite what has been reported as the halting pace of radiation containment at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, business aviation operations in the country are slowly returning to normal, according to industry sources. Statistics from flight tracking provider Flight Aware showed a total of 33 general aviation flights from North America and U.S. territories headed to Japan in March (down approximately 30 percent from the same time the previous year) while April’s total as of press time appeared to be approaching a similar result.

The initial flurry of charter requests operators received from people seeking to escape from Japan’s misfortune quickly subsided. Most who wanted to leave did so early on, either through private lift or as seats on commercial flights became available.

Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport, originally closed to business aviation traffic to make way for relief flights, was reopened before the end of March. Concern about the availability of jet-A has abated. In fact, according to the Narita International Airport Corporation, the airport maintains a minimum of seven days’ supply of fuel as a standard practice and the supply last month averaged nearly twice that amount. Another positive sign was the reopening of tsunami-swamped Sendai Airport to limited commercial traffic, little more than a month after its runways were covered in water, mud and debris. Early estimates had predicted the facility would be out of action for perhaps as long as a year.

Radiation Concerns on the Back Burner

Though the situation at the disabled nuclear complex remains far from resolved–the plant’s operator recently revealed that it would likely take at least until the end of the year to secure the damaged reactors–health concerns, at least in the Tokyo area, appeared to have abated at press time. In the early weeks after the disaster, foreign business jet operators and crews expressed concerns about layovers in Tokyo, with most dropping off passengers and swiftly relocating the aircraft to other airports. “Certainly for the first few weeks after the event, that’s what we saw, and now its starting to subside,” said Matt Pahl, manager of international flight operations for Rockwell Collins Flight Information Systems. “It seems the operators are getting a little more comfortable being in Tokyo.”

On its website, Narita International Airport publishes daily radiation levels as measured by a monitor at the airport, which is approximately 200 km from the failed power station. Those levels have shown a general downward trend since the end of March, as emergency crews struggled to cool the melting reactor cores. ICAO addressed the situation in a statement last month, stating, “The United Nations organizations closely monitoring the effects of the damaged Fukushima Dai-ichi plant remain confident that current radiation levels do not present health or transportation safety hazards to passengers and crew.”

A recent NBAA release featuring comments from Dr. Glenn Fjoven, a professor of nuclear and radiological engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, echoed that assessment. “Your dose just from flying the airplane at altitude is ten to a hundred times more” than anything you might receive from flying near the damaged Japanese reactors, he said. “There is no out-of-the-ordinary risk.”

“Things have continued to approach normalcy in Tokyo in many ways,” said Chris Buchholz, Universal Weather & Aviation’s president of Asia-Pacific, noting increased availability of fuel, ground transportation, electricity, food and lodging, all of which were affected by the earthquake. “If you look at the flights being booked through us, coming up in May and June, flights especially from North America are definitely coming back,” said Buchholz. “Those people obviously deem that business requires them to fly back to Tokyo. As long as things don’t get worse, it looks like corporate movements are coming back gradually.”