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Foreigners stream out of Tokyo

/ 05:16 AM March 18, 2011

TOKYO—Airlines scrambled on Thursday to fly thousands of passengers out of Tokyo as the United States authorized the first evacuations of Americans out of Japan and other governments—from Britain to South Korea—advised their citizens to leave.

As an increasing number of governments also urged their citizens to avoid unnecessary travel to this country, there was a sharp drop in demand to fly to Japan amid growing concern over the country’s ability to contain its nuclear crisis.

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Europe’s energy chief earlier warned of a further catastrophe at Japan’s Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear site.

Addressing a committee of the European Parliament, Guenther Oettinger on Wednesday said the situation at the earthquake-damaged plant was now “effectively out of control” and urged people to leave the country.

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The former premier of the German region of Baden-Wuerttemberg said that Japan was facing “apocalypse.”

Airline tickets sold out on Thursday and firms hired private jets to move their staff out, fearing the nuclear crisis caused by a damaged power plant in northeastern Japan could escalate.

The US travel warning extended to American citizens already in the country and urged them to consider leaving. The authorized departure offered voluntary evacuation to family members and dependents of US personnel in Tokyo, Yokohama and Nagoya, affecting some 600 personnel.

Patrick Kennedy, a senior official of the US state department, said chartered planes would be brought in to help private American citizens who wanted to leave.

“The situation has deteriorated in the days since the tsunami and … the situation has grown at times worse with potential greater damage and fallout from the reactor,” White House spokesperson Jay Carney said in Washington.

Demand for jets

China moved thousands of its citizens to Tokyo for evacuation from the country and France said it was assigning two government planes to pull its people out.

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Several large Nordic companies, including Ikea and H&M, offered to help their Japanese employees leave Tokyo and surrounding areas and relocate further south.

Indian IT firms were helping employees to leave, with software firm L&T Infotech saying it had chartered a plane to take all 185 of its staff and their families out of Japan.

The International Bankers’ Association said it was “business as usual” for major firms, but an exodus of foreign professionals saw demand surge for private jets, according to Asian operators.

One-way ticket

Commercial flights were also under pressure, with just a handful of seats left on most services from Narita—which serves Tokyo—to Hong Kong, Singapore or Seoul.

Demand was driving the average price of a one-way ticket above $3,000, far higher than the normal price.

Australia’s Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said it was the “breakdown of essential services” that had prompted Canberra’s evacuation warning, not merely radiation fears, with schools closed and power and transport badly disrupted.

Britain advised its citizens to consider leaving Tokyo and northeastern Japan though British officials said there was still “no real human health issue that people should be concerned about.”

Germany, Italy and The Netherlands also advised their nationals to leave the sprawling capital or refrain from traveling to the northeastern region destroyed by the 9-magnitude quake and tsunami.

France has also advised its citizens 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.

French Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet called the situation in Japan a “catastrophe.”

“One has to be basically concerned that the whole thing is in God’s hands,” he said.

Radiation tests

Serbia and Croatia advised their citizens to leave, while Croatia said it was moving its embassy from Tokyo to Osaka because of the nuclear crisis.

More than 3,000 Chinese have already been evacuated from Japan’s northeast to Niigata on Japan’s western coast, according to Xinhua News Agency. On Tuesday, Beijing became the first government to organize a mass evacuation of its citizens from the quake-affected area.

Some governments have started testing their citizens returning from Japan for radiation levels.

South Korea has set up residual radiation detection gates at Incheon and Gimpo international airports that have direct flights to Japan, the South’s Yonhap news agency reported.

Nearly empty flights

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

Private jet companies said they were inundated with requests for help with evacuation.

Scores of flights to Japan were halted or rerouted this week on fears of radiation leaks from the stricken nuclear plant.

But the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA), which represents 17 scheduled international airlines in the region, said domestic flights within Japan were operating normally as were most international flights.

“Domestic flights are now operating according to the normal schedules,” AAPA director general Andrew Herdman said.

“International airlines are also operating full schedules to and from Japan, although a number of carriers have adjusted their schedules to minimize overnight stops and related crew changes in Tokyo. Air cargo services are operating normally,” he added.

US airlines United Continental Holdings, Delta Air Lines and American Airlines said they were operating a normal schedule.

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

Flights diverted

Deutsche Lufthansa had said it was diverting flights away from Tokyo to Osaka and Nagoya, at least until the weekend.

Air China said it had canceled flights to Tokyo from Beijing and Shanghai, mainly due to lack of operational capacity at some airports.

Cathay Pacific was running a special offer for people wishing to flee Japan for Hong Kong and Vietnam Airlines said it would lay on larger planes on its Tokyo-Hanoi route, offering big discounts for Vietnamese wishing to return.

Switzerland promised charter flights if commercial carriers couldn’t meet demand and Russia was to begin evacuating dependents of its diplomatic and commercial personnel in Tokyo on Friday.

Hotels were booked out in the western hub of Osaka, with foreigners and Japanese alike descending there from Tokyo in the search for accommodation and office space, including foreign embassies. Reports from Reuters, Associated Press and Agence France-Presse

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TAGS: Earthquake, Evacuation, Nuclear accident, Tsunami
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