The three largest U.S. carriers scrambled Friday to ensure that employees in Japan were safe as they re-routed passengers and aircraft bound for the earthquake-stricken country.
United, Delta and American airlines canceled many, but not all, flights to Japan Friday and offered to waive booking fees for those who opted to cancel or reschedule travel there as the country recovers from one of the largest earthquakes on record.
Travel was fouled up throughout northern Asia after Japanese officials closed Narita International Airport and shut down train lines to the airport, which is about an hour outside of Tokyo, after a massive earthquake and tsunami crippled the region. Bloomberg reported that more than 14,000 people were stranded at the airport in the disaster’s aftermath.
While American Airlines canceled all of its six daily flights from the U.S. to Japan Friday, United Airlines continued some operations, including a Chicago flight to Narita scheduled to depart at 1:16 p.m. Central time.
Overnight, United and American diverted all flights west-bound from the U.S. to Japan when the quake struck. With Narita closed as more than 30 aftershocks rumbled through Tokyo, U.S. carriers diverted planes headed for the busy hub to airports around the Pacific Rim.
By mid-day Friday, American was returning three of its six diverted aircraft to the points where they originated Thursday. American Flight 153, for example, was headed back to O’Hare International Airport after being grounded in Anchorage, Alaska, said American spokesman Ed Martelle.
United had diverted seven flights and Continental, the carrier’s merger partner, diverted two aircraft, said Megan McCarthy, a United spokeswoman. By mid-day Friday, dispatchers for the carriers were working to get planes stranded in Japan, Korea and Anchorage to their destinations after learning that Narita would open by noon Saturday, Japan standard time, McCarthy said.
United and Continental had canceled 11 departures from the mainland U.S. and Hawaii to Japan earlier Friday. Continental also canceled five flights from Guam to airports across Japan, including Sendai, scene of some of the worst destruction.
Neither American nor United reported any injuries to Japan-based workers. However, several American staffers were stranded in a rail car just minutes from Narita for more than six hours, Martelle said.
“They were not happy about that, but they’re fine,” he added.