Flights to Japan Cut as Foreigners Scramble to Leave

HONG KONG

China is evacuating its nationals from quake-hit parts of Japan and two airlines have cut flights to the stricken country, while foreigners scrambled to leave from Tokyo’s airports.

As food, water and power ran short in large swathes of Japan and a nuclear crisis worsened, Air China and Taiwan’s EVA Airways reduced their flights into the ravaged country on Tuesday. Malaysia screened passengers from Japan for radiation.

China said it was sending buses to evacuate its citizens from four disaster- hit areas including Fukushima, where two explosions took place at a nuclear power station on Tuesday and radiation levels were found to be harmful to humans.

Other overseas nationals in Japan took matters into their own hands.

Student Kin Li, 18, returned home to Hong Kong from Tokyo because of radiation fears.

“Things were so chaotic over there. There were long lines at the airport — it was like a refugee camp,” he said at the Chinese territory’s airport.

Li’s mother said: “I was so worried and unhappy. I told my son studying would have to wait — ‘Safety first.’ The situation is just heart-wrenching. I just wanted him home.”

At Tokyo’s Haneda airport, where long queues stretched from departure desks, French national Baptiste Chetcuti said: “I have a pregnant wife and a 10-year-old daughter, and we’re here at Haneda airport. We don’t have any return tickets yet, but we want to leave Japan — whatever the price.”

EVA Airways cancelled 14 flights scheduled to leave for Tokyo from Taiwan before the end of March and another five to Sapporo, a spokesman for the firm said, blaming cancellations by tourists.

All flights to Sendai, whose airport was flattened by the tsunami, were cancelled until June 30, he said.

Air China called off half of its six daily Beijing-Tokyo flights for Tuesday and Wednesday, and one of its three Shanghai-Tokyo flights for each of the two days, while flights to Sendai were on hold.

But the flag carrier said it had cut flights because of worries over aftershocks rather than radioactive contamination.

“We have cancelled some of the flights from China for safety reasons. But most flights remain normal,” Air China spokeswoman Zhu Mei said.

“The cancelled fights were those scheduled to stay one night at Japan airports. The planes could face danger in the event of aftershocks.”

Zhu said so far she knew of no new disruptions over radiation fears.

Air China was not screening any incoming passengers for radiation.

But the company that runs Malaysia’s airports said it was checking passengers for radioactive contamination as they emerged off direct flights from Japan.

“The screening started on Monday morning, involving three airlines which fly directly to Tokyo — Japan Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and AirAsia X,” a spokeswoman for Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad said.

South Korea said it was considering a similar measure, and Thai Airways said it had told its cabin crew on flights to Tokyo not to stay overnight in Japan to reduce the risks from radiation and aftershocks.

India downplayed the threats, however, with officials at the foreign ministry saying they were constantly in touch with the embassy in Japan and had so far seen no need to evacuate Indians.

An Air India spokesperson, K. Swaminathan, said: “Air India is operating flights to Japan. Up to now we have no instructions from the government to screen passengers coming from Japan for radiation.”

Software exporter Infosys said however it had called its 350-strong Indian workforce home.

South Korean flights to Japan were operating as normal — except to Sendai — a spokesman for Incheon airport said, while Australian airlines Qantas and Jetstar said their flights were going ahead.

Indonesian and Hong Kong authorities and Singapore Airlines said their flight schedules would proceed.

Countries including Australia and Thailand have already urged their nationals not to go near the stricken plant and to reconsider travel to other areas affected by Friday’s 9.0-magnitude quake and subsequent tsunami.

Higher-than-normal radiation was detected in Tokyo on Tuesday as Japan fought its atomic crisis, but a city official said it was not at a level harmful to human health.

Before the quake Japan’s government set a long-term target of attracting 30 million overseas visitors a year. Over 600,000 overseas nationals were working in Japan as of 2009, according to the labour ministry.

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