European, Asian airlines take steps to avoid Tokyo

FRANKFURT Tue Mar 15, 2011 10:20am EDT

Japanese travellers rest near the ANA ticket counter after all the flights to Tokyo were cancelled after a tsunami and earthquake hit Japan on Friday, at Hong Kong international airport March 12, 2011. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Japanese travellers rest near the ANA ticket counter after all the flights to Tokyo were cancelled after a tsunami and earthquake hit Japan on Friday, at Hong Kong international airport March 12, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

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FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Airlines from Asia and Europe halted flights to Tokyo on Tuesday, diverting planes south as fears grow of nuclear contamination in the wake of Japan's devastating earthquake and tsunami.

Deutsche Lufthansa (LHAG.DE) said it was diverting flights to Osaka and Nagoya at least until the weekend, adding that planes returning from Tokyo on Monday were not contaminated.

Air China (601111.SS) said it had cancelled flights to Tokyo from Beijing and Shanghai, mainly due to the lack of operational capacity at some airports, while Taiwan's EVA Airways (2618.TW) said it would cancel flights to Tokyo and Sapporo until the end of March.

Joerg Handwerg, spokesman for German pilots' union Vereinigung Cockpit, said aircraft exteriors offered no protection against radiation and that as soon as any was measured in Tokyo, flights would certainly be stopped.

The Japanese government has already imposed restrictions to keep civilian flights away from the Fukushima nuclear reactor, which is now sending low levels of radiation towards Tokyo.

Some airlines also took steps to limit staff presence in Tokyo. Other international companies such as SAP (SAPG.DE) and Infineon (IFXGn.DE), are moving staff out of the capital to locations further south because of radiation concerns.

Air France-KLM (AIRF.PA), Europe's largest carrier by revenue, moved all of its crew on Monday out of Tokyo to Osaka, KLM spokeswoman Gedi Schrijver told Reuters on Tuesday.

Swiss International Air Lines said it had introduced an interim stop in Hong Kong on its route to Tokyo in order to shorten turnaround times in the Japanese capital.

Others, such as British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Finnair (FIA1S.HE), said they were still flying to the Narita and Haneda airports in the Japanese capital.

The top five international carriers, according to U.S.-based aviation data company Innovata, are Japan Airlines with a market share of 13.5 percent, Delta Air Lines (DAL.N) with 9.2 percent, Korean Air (003490.KS) with 9.1 percent, ANA with 8.8 percent and South Korea's Asiana Airlines (020560.KS) with 6 percent.

Delta (DAL.N) and American Airlines AMR.N said they were operating a normal schedule to Japan.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday said it was prepared to take action including the rerouting of flights to Japan if the nuclear crisis there worsens.

Governments also issued travel warnings in the wake of rising radiation levels.

The Netherlands foreign ministry said it had no plans thus far to launch an evacuation plan as long as commercial flights were still available.

As with the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia, Air France also said it was sending larger planes to Japan to accommodate demand.

A Lufthansa spokesman added its flights to Japan were well-booked and it had not seen a wave of cancellations so far.

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