Airlines scramble to assist Japan exodus

FRANKFURT Wed Mar 16, 2011 4:05pm EDT

FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Airlines raced on Wednesday to clear Tokyo's airports of a backlog of passengers and help those wanting to leave, as fears grew that quake-stricken Japan was losing control of a steadily growing nuclear crisis.

The disaster has transformed parts of Tokyo into ghost towns as people either stay indoors or exit.

Some countries, like France and Austria, advised their citizens traveling in Japan to get out or head to southern Japan. The French embassy in Tokyo said it had asked Air France to prepare planes for the evacuation of French nationals from Japan, and two were already on their way.

"We're not seeing any reduction in service. The U.S. airlines that serve Japan are still flying a full schedule," said Jean Medina, spokeswoman for the Air Transport Association (ATA), a U.S. industry trade group.

She said ATA member airlines were in touch with U.S. regulators and were prepared to react if conditions change.

U.S. airlines United Continental Holdings Inc, Delta Air Lines Inc and AMR Corp's American Airlines said they were operating a normal schedule.

International Airways Group's British Airways was flying a full schedule as well. A spokeswoman for BA said the airline was looking at alternative options for its flights.

The Association of Asia Pacific Airlines, which represents 17 scheduled international airlines in the region, also said domestic flights and air cargo services were now operating normally.

SCRAMBLING TO GET OUT

An aviation official in Asia said there had been a sharp drop in demand to fly to Japan coupled with a rush to leave. And private jet companies said they were inundated with requests for help with evacuation.

Airlines did not provide much information on passenger loads in and out of Japan, but some travelers reported nearly one-way traffic in the region by passengers eager to leave the country. Japan-bound travels said their flights were nearly empty.

"I've never been on such an empty flight," said Briton Andy Beese, a Tokyo-based photographer, who flew back to Tokyo late Tuesday from London on an Asiana Airlines Inc flight.

"It was a (300-seat Boeing) 777 with barely 20 people on board," Beese said.

Some businesses with operations in Japan were making plans to evacuate workers if conditions became dangerous.

Among companies already making contingency plans were SAP AG, Continental AG, PSA Peugeot Citroen and Cisco Systems Inc.

Law firms such as Allen & Overy and banks have closed offices, while an employee at international law firm Herbert Smith said Tokyo-based staff had been asked to work remotely.

Retailer H&M said nine of its 10 Tokyo stores were closed and it was helping staff who wished to leave the country.

French asset management firm Amundi said it had evacuated families of French nationals among its 230 staffers in Japan, but French insurer Axa said it had no immediate plans to relocate its 8,000 people based there.

A Tokyo resident who works for Nomura Securities said she was exhausted from worry over radiation possibly reaching the capital and its effect on her 12-year-old son.

"Some of my colleagues are leaving (Tokyo) tonight. People have suggested I avoid Narita because it's closer (to the nuclear incident). They are trying to fly out of Haneda (Airport in Tokyo) or getting the bullet train to Osaka and going from there," she said, asking not to be named.

Her husband said he would stay on in Tokyo but power outages were wreaking havoc for his small information technology company and they might have to move operations to their other office in New York.

"I'm not really ready to leave yet, I'm not sure how much of the media coverage I can trust," said. "It is a bit spooky here though, with big department store closed and supermarket shelves empty."

LONG-TERM EFFECT?

While airlines cope with the immediate disruption on a daily basis, experts are still trying to assess the long-term impact on Japan's travel and tourism industry.

"Longer term, they will be evaluating the market to see what their operations should be before changing their schedules," said Alistair Rivers, director of industry affairs at Innovata, a U.S. aviation data management and distribution company.

The International Air Transport Association said the Japanese disaster would reduce premium air travel in March, as Japan makes up 6-7 percent of the global market.

The World Travel & Tourism Council estimates travel and tourism made up 6.8 percent of Japan's 2011 gross domestic product before the quake, although growth forecasts for 2011 were now in doubt.

Japan has one of the world's most active domestic air travel markets, using high-density aircraft to meet demand, with more than 2.5 million seats available in a typical week.

The domestic market is dominated by All Nippon Airways followed by Japan Airlines. Together they represent 77 percent of the home market, according to Innovata.

The top three foreign carriers operating into Japan are Delta with a market share of 9.2 percent, Korean Air with 9.1 percent and Asiana, also of South Korea, with 6 percent.

(Additional reporting by Michael Shields, Maria Sheahan, Alison Leung, Greg Roumeliotis, Alexandre Boksenbaum, Anna Ringstrom, Mariko Katsumura, Emma Thomasson, John Bowker, Jason Neely and Kyle Peterson; Editing by Tim Hepher, Jon Loades-Carter and Gerald E. McCormick)