Rising radiation levels and continual aftershocks rumbling through Tokyo are raising tensions between pilots and managers at U.S. carriers flying to central Japan.
Union leaders at United and Continental Airlines say flight crews are anxious about deteriorating conditions in Tokyo, where the carriers’ pilots and flight attendants recuperate from long trans-Pacific flights.
Pilot union leaders are pressuring management at United Continental Holdings Inc., the airlines’ Chicago-based parent, to rework flight schedules so flight crews stay in cities unaffected by the nuclear crisis and temblors triggered by Friday’s 9.0-magnitude quake.
United, Delta and American airlines say they are monitoring health risks for passengers and flight crew and keeping flights well away from a 20-mile no-fly zone over the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors, about 100 miles north of Tokyo.
The airlines have also drawn up plans to move workers quickly out of Tokyo should conditions worsen. United Continental has kept a Boeing 747 jumbo jet at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport for four days, sources said.
But the U.S. carriers insist flight crews stay in Tokyo-area hotels, though some European and Asian airlines have shifted to cities in southern Japan or Korea, well away from radiation hazards.
“This was a no-brainer for us,” said Capt. Jay Pierce, who heads Continental’s pilots union. “I was really shocked when it was rejected.”
Australia’s Qantas Airways Ltd., Germany’s Lufthansa, Dutch carrier KLM and Taiwan’s EVA have rerouted flights so crews won’t have to stay overnight in Tokyo as radiation concerns rise, according to wire reports.
United, Delta and American insist the situation is safe and continue to operate as scheduled into Narita, where they face long lines of residents and foreign nationals eager to leave the stricken nation.
“This is not an arbitrary decision,” said Tim Smith, a spokesman for Dallas-based American. “We have been monitoring it very closely. There is no radiation level that is of a particular concern in Tokyo.”
Pete McDonald, United Continental’s chief operating officer, similar told pilot union leaders Tuesday that the carrier’s contingency plans were adequate and that it wouldn’t reroute flights to stop in Tokyo but deposit crews in safer cities.
“The safety of our employees is first and foremost, for all of our flight crews as well as the 1,000 employees who live in Japan,” said Megan McCarthy, spokeswoman for United Continental.
Pilots are concerned about fatigue, saying colleagues staying in Tokyo report being awakened by aftershocks and stressed over the uncertainty of radiation exposure, said Garry Kravit, a union leader at United.
“We don’t know what we don’t know,” Kravit said. “There’s the uncertainty of a continuously escalating nuclear emergency.”
Doug Leja, an American pilot who flew into Narita Saturday, described the hotel shared by crew for several carriers as damaged by Friday’s earthquake and subject to blackouts that cut off Internet access and closed restaurants.
But most memorable was a 7.5-magnitude aftershock that rocked the hotel as he tried to rest.
“I’ve been through several earthquakes in California,” said Leja, a Los Angeles-based Boeing 777 pilot. “They were nothing like what I went through in Tokyo. … It was loud and then it got even more violent.”
The Japan crisis is unchartered for carriers, who are well versed in dealing with unpredictable forces such as last year’s Icelandic volcano eruption and roller-coaster oil prices.
Now the hazard to be avoided at all costs is nuclear fallout. For the first time in recent memory, a red radiation sign marks the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi reactors on maps used by U.S. flight dispatchers to route planes around storms, volcanoes and other hazards.
“Our health services department is consulting with nuclear and radiological experts on the facts in Japan to ensure our crews and operations are safe,” said Betsy Talton, a spokeswoman for Atlanta-based Delta. “Also, Delta’s meteorology team is continuously monitoring wind patterns and forecasts to ensure Delta flights are following safe flight patterns.”