Travel as an escape
As I write this, the first U.S. chartered flights are leaving Japan carrying those military families and private citizens who wish to leave. Unlike the destinations affected by the 2004 tsunami, business travellers know the futuristic conurbation of Tokyo well. Its generation-next skyscrapers and bullet trains make for one of the slickest corporate hubs on the planet.
We, and the rest of the connected world, watch agape as this most civilised country deals with the disaster, very much doubting that if such a cataclysm befell us, we would behave with such patience, decorum, dignity.
Travel rather loses its lustre during a disaster. Aircraft, from colossal superjumbos to sleek business jets, are immediately transformed into mere escape vessels. Airports, with their minimalistic lounges, extensive retail emporia and F&B venues, begin to resemble refugee camps – or hospitals. Today, Taiwan’s international airport featured radiation-testing military personnel, while Seoul’s Incheon airport set up monitoring posts.
Commendably, airlines are not keeping their distance – they’re sending more frequent, larger aircraft to Tokyo, filling up outbound seats with fleeing passengers. Passenger loads were not given for most of Thursday (except a BA lunchtime flight from London to Tokyo which counted 177 passengers out of 37, and a later Japan Airlines flight later with 184 out of 272), but airline staff were reported to express surprise at the determination of many to travel home to Japan. Japan-bound passengers interviewed (Japanese workers, foreign contractors and Japanese students) said their flights were nearly empty.
Hajime Nagatsuna, a returning passenger interviewed by Reuters, pragmatically explained that his main concern was getting home from the airport, as he’d heard that trains and public transport were not working. He said: “No one knows what might happen in the case of a meltdown of a nuclear plant and how much bigger than Hiroshima and Nagasaki it will be.”
Lufthansa’s boss told us that they can keep flying even if the situation deteriorates further. “But never say never; we don’t know what will happen there over the coming days and weeks.” Delta Air Lines, however, decided not to wait and see. The airline, which runs more flights to Japan than any other U.S. carrier, said it would suspend its daily flights from Tokyo’s Haneda Airport to Los Angeles and Detroit beginning next week.
But this is no April 2010 dust-cloud situation for travellers; those who want to leave can. I asked CWT, a travel management company, what their experience has been thus far. Nigel Turner, the firm’s director of Programme Management for UK & Ireland wrote me that they are, “working closely with our corporate customers to identify which employees they have in Japan and assist with repatriation them where necessary. At present we are managing to get the space on departing flights that we need.”
Private crisis response and evacuation firms, increasingly relied upon to extract people in emergency situations, also come into their own at times like this. With their logistics procedures finely honed after recent mass evacuations from Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, British companies like Control Risks, AKE and Northcott Global Solutions have hit the ground running.
As the latter’s operation director, Tom Frankland put it: “I have to say it has played into our hands… We are using it to make the case that our clients should look at purchasing political evacuation insurance to compromise their current medical plans.”
People may want to leave Tokyo as they wait for the Fukushima nuclear reactor to be brought under control, but they won’t stay away for long.