Unions balk as Japan woes put flight crews on edge

By Julie Johnsson
Posted March 16 at 7:05 p.m.

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.”



Companies in this article


  1. eaagle March 16 at 10:30 pm

    Blackouts that cut off internet access and caused restaurants to close? I had no idea the situation in Tokyo was so dire. Get those good men and women out of Japan. Get them somewhere, anywhere, where restaurants are open and internet access is not interrupted.

  2. mysterimeritage March 17 at 6:12 a.m.

    If you were in an area that just had a 9.0 earthquake, followed by a tsunami and possible nuclear meltdown, wouln’t your family want to know that you were all right? Wouldn’t you want to follow the news to see if the situation became worse? The internet is used for things other than entertainment, in this case it has become a lifeline. As for restaurants closing, I suppose the crews could go find a store and stand in line to purchase the few items that are left, or just go without eating for 24-48 hours. Why should you care about them? Oh yes, because they are U.S. citizens!

  3. flygal March 17 at 8:58 a.m.

    yes! it’s not required that i eat! it’s not required to let my family know i’m okay when i’m put in narita for a layover. and no, i’m not eating… thanks. i have water a a few pieces of chocolate from the airplane. that is my dinner, possibly my breakfast and lunch… because the grocery stores are either closed or have absolutely nothing in them… thanks for being so insensitive, eaagle!

  4. Ascot21071 March 17 at 2:02 pm

    No one is being forced to fly to Japan. DL, UA, CO, UA and HA in the United States are all allowing crew to drop their trip to Japan and fly something else or just reduce their hours. I see this as an issue about crew wanting to be paid to sit at home and not fly. If flying to Japan is so objectionable, and your lack of trust in the statements/
    research/findings from authorities in both Japan and the US is so great then perhaps you are in the wrong career. Laying over 100 miles from the nuclear plant, for a 24 hour period is insignificant when compared to the people living in Japan. Do you not feel an obligation to assist those attempting to leave by providing transport out of the country.
    Flygal – perhaps you should bring your meals from home if you are concerned that your dining choices in Narita will be limited. Give me a break.

  5. flyhigh1759 March 17 at 8:33 pm

    @Ascot21071….could not agree more with your post!

  6. mysterimeritage March 17 at 10:47 pm

    OK, first of all crew do not get paid when they sit at home. Trips to/from Japan are determined in the prior month and crew can NOT just call up and say they do not want to fly somewhere. It requires major plannning & hoop jumping thru several departments. Most foreign countries & the U.S. do not allow food products to be brought in & with the rolling blackouts there is no power to even heat water more or less a meal of any type. Many foreign carriers have found a way to protect their crews by flying them in & out of the country from Korea, thus not requiring them to layover in Japan – which by the way puts a burdon on resources such as food and fuel that can be better utilized by the Japanese citizens right now. Airline personnel who have spent time in Japan are especially empathetic and caring and not only are they seeing to it that transport is available in either direction for those who need it but many have been volunteering/fund raising/providing extra supplies for the devastated population in the Sendai area. There are better things that we all can be doing than challenging career choices of people who like you, just want to remain safe while doing their jobs.

  7. Scarlett Rose March 17 at 11:12 pm

    Not true at Delta. We are not given a choice to fly to Narita, except choice of counseling or no job.

  8. Scarlett Rose March 17 at 11:22 pm

    Ascot, where do you get your information? We do not get paid if we don’t fly. We do not have to layover there, we could go on to a safer place but the company does not seem to think having no heat or lights or water in freezing temperatures is an issue. Oh, yeah, the radiation is not an issue for the company either. It would be nice to have a microwave or hot water heater for all the food I am bringing from home–even oatmeal and soup need electricity. Shelves are empty in the stores and restaurants have very limited menus and hours. We are awakened during the night by aftershocks after having been on duty for 15 hours (don’t forget the 1hour 30 minute report time prior to flight, the time it takes to clear immigrations and customs, time it takes to get to the hotel, etc., which make our “duty time” over 18 most of the time, not to mention getting ready for work, eating breakfast) and you should be concerned that your crew is getting enough sleep to fly you safely home. We are not covered by OSHA safety regulations. Airline cabin crews are covered by FAA rules and they are not anywhere near as stringent as OSHA, but I am sure you have no respect for flight attendants anyway.

  9. HappyWanderer March 18 at 12:39 pm

    Could it be possible that KLM, Air France, Lufthansa, Air China, etc care about their employees More than UAL, DAL, & AMR do??
    They are flying THROUGH NRT and laying their crews over in Osaka or Seoul.
    Those companies are taking a financial hit to keep their employees safe from harm.
    But I forget, in the American culture, Making Money is the primary objective, not keeping your valued employees safe.

  10. SFOFA March 18 at 8:27 pm

    Delta got rid of the meteorology department 2 years ago. Who is Betsy Talton referring too?

  11. SFOFA March 18 at 8:45 pm

    During the gulf war the NWA and union came up with plans to keep crews safe such as double crewing aircraft so no crew had to layover, one crew would work there, while one crew rested on the flight, and they would switch for the leg home, Yes laying over in japan is a huge issue right now. with no food, only short periods of water and electricity. We have a 4pm flight and only have electricity and water from midnight to 6am? try getting your slef dressed and ready for work and then sitting around for 9 hours. and for the flight crews who have been flying there for decades, they have many friends in japan, we have a close relationship with many of the regular passengers and even consider the hotel staff our family cause we see them so often, we celebrate more holidays and birthdays with the hotel staff then we do with our own families! so dont question our level of concern for the Japanese people. No Delta is not allowing trip drops. They have deemed Narita safe! Delta employees dont have the option of Fear of Flying. which was granted after Sep11 like a personal leave when there was a threat at work, it was successfully used by NWA crews again when the layover hotel in India was attacked and crew members saw hotel staff killed in the lobby, Another time was when the NWA flight from Japan to LAX was threatened with a bomb crews were allowed to refuse to work that flight.