Airlines Adjust for Japan's Radiation Risk

International airlines began to make adjustments to account for the risks posed by Japan's stricken nuclear reactors, with some limiting the ability of crews to stay over in the country. Ovation's executive vice president, Michael Steiner, weighs in.

Air France-KLM SA and Deutsche Lufthansa AG amended their Japan flights to add stops in Seoul, where crews are resting after long flights instead of in Tokyo. The change is aimed at protecting pilots and flight attendants from the danger of nuclear-plant accidents, as well as to ensure staff get better rest than they would amid Tokyo's power outages and water shortages.

Thai Airways International PCL similarly ordered its cabin crews not to remain overnight in Japan to reduce the risk from radiation and aftershocks.

The moves come as airlines work to meet the demand for flights out of – and, surprisingly, into -- Japan, while managing the risks flowing from the battle to stop meltdowns at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors 150 miles northeast of Tokyo, a situation that has seen dramatic swings in the time it takes to complete a transcontinental trip.

Underscoring the risks, aviation regulators on Tuesday issued a formal warning about the potential hazard from Japan's stricken nuclear power station. The London arm of the Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre issued a formal "emergency" warning to flight crew and highlighted the 30 kilometer exclusion zone around the stricken plant. The center, which shot to prominence last year when overseeing the monitoring of a volcanic eruption in Iceland that disrupted flights for several weeks, has been designated as the global focus for alerting flights to radiation hazards.

Most carriers continue to offer flights into and out of Tokyo. An exception is Lufthansa, which dropped its two daily flights to the city and replaced them with an extra flight each to Osaka and Nagoya, which are south and west of Tokyo.

Austrian Airlines, wholly owned by Lufthansa, went ahead with its Vienna-Tokyo service Tuesday, but with an army radiation expert aboard the flight.

"After thorough evaluation of the safety situation, Austrian Airlines have now decided to operate today's flight OS 051 from Vienna to Tokyo," the airline said. "We are observing the situation in Japan continuously."

Delta Air Lines Inc., the largest U.S.-based airline in Japan, said its health services department is consulting with nuclear and radiological experts in Japan on how to maintain the safety of its crews and operations, a company spokeswoman said.

The airline, along with AMR's American Airlines, continues to operate normal flight schedules -- six daily nonstop flights for American and around 40 for Delta -- and both still have flight crews stay in Japan overnight.

Flight demand seems to be strong, as relief agencies mobilize their aid workers, but corporate travel has slowed.

Doug Anderson, CEO of Carlson Wagonlit Travel, which specializes in travel services for corporations, said in a phone interview it had seen cancellations from business travelers in recent days. New bookings into Japan have been few, while travelers are requesting to avoid connecting through Narita International Airport, even if it means substantial itinerary changes.

American Airlines spokesman Tim Smith said the carrier is seeing some foreign residents leave Japan, but "it's not anything that I would call a mass exodus."

United Continental Holdings Inc. said all of its Japan flights are operating normally, with the exception of Continental's daily Guam-Sendai flight that is cancelled because the airport in that hard-hit city is closed. Its crews continue to spend the night in Tokyo.

Major European airlines largely maintained their schedules, though with some adjustments. Air France-KLM, which had operated an Airbus A380 superjumbo and a Boeing 777 widebody to Tokyo, is now operating two high-density 777s. The result is a net addition of 100 seats each way daily between Paris and Tokyo.

The carriers say demand is even strong for flights into Japan, probably as Japanese people who were working or traveling in Europe scramble to return home.

For those looking to leave the country, flights are still available, travel agents in Tokyo and the airlines said. Seats could be harder to come by, however, if the situation at the nuclear plants worsens.

Michael Steiner, executive vice president at Ovation Corporate Travel, a New York-based travel management company with many clients in the financial services industry, said radiation is now the primary concern for travelers and their employers. Firms are looking at moving key people to Hong Kong and Singapore, and are already making preparations to pull people out more aggressively.

"The next two days will be very interesting," he said.