‘Christmas rescue’ for 1000 Hongkongers trapped in Japan

27-Dec-2016 Intellasia | Korea Times | 6:00 AM Print This Post

A Christmas rescue mission is under way to fly stranded Hongkongers home from northern Japan after the popular winter holiday destination was battered by its biggest snowstorm in more than 50 years.

The storm has dumped 960mm of snow on Sapporo in Hokkaido prefecture from Friday, forcing the cancellation of dozens of flights in the area, according to Japanese transport authorities.

Cathay Pacific will return 1,600 passengers to Hong Kong in the early hours of Boxing Day. Three further rescue flights will pick up more passengers between December 26 and 27.

In anticipation of the weather deteriorating in the Hokkaido region, Hong Kong’s biggest airline has cancelled seven scheduled flights between the two cities on Monday and Tuesday.

About 6,000 people were stranded on Friday night and Saturday night in New Chitose Airport, which serves the Japanese city.

Among the more than 1,000 Hongkongers trapped in Sapporo, two spoke to the Post of different experiences in the international and domestic terminals of the airport.

An eyewitness caught up in the travel chaos described the airport conditions as “terrifying” as tensions among travellers boiled over into violence and protests.

Sean Fitzpatrick, travelling with his wife and two young sons, said he took them out of the airport because he regarded the situation as “unsafe.”

The Fitzpatricks were among the first Cathay passengers to be stranded after their December 22 flight was cancelled due to the heavy snowstorm.

The family waited and watched the volume of passengers multiply daily as flight cancellations piled up and tempers flared. On Sunday afternoon the family had enough and ditched their Cathay flight for a domestic flight to Tokyo.

“We took the initiative to get out of that airport simply because we couldn’t put our kids through another night of this intensity,” Fitzpatrick said.

The family witnessed a group of mainland passengers attack airport staff, triggering police intervention.

“It was absolutely crazy that the situation flared up so quickly,” he said. “The group started chanting and made things very tense and wrapped the atmosphere up into almost a riot situation.

“We’ve got two young children who witnessed a lot of things that terrified them and actually upset them.”

He also saw people sprawled out on the floor, in unsanitary conditions, with people constantly stepping over each other.

“You would be in competition with everyone to buy everything, so food and water, basic stuff like that which was running out in that zone because there were just so many people everywhere,” Fitzpatrick said.

While acknowledging that the situation was beyond Cathay’s control, he criticised the airline for not having a more visible staff presence. Only one Cathay employee was there to handle complaints and abuse from a growing chorus of angry passengers, he added.

The situation was far better in the much larger domestic terminal. Wong Sin-just, who was travelling via Tokyo to return to Hong Kong, said: “[Sapporo] Chitose gets my vote for the best airport to be stranded in. It has a multiplex cinema, hot spring, massage spa, amusement park, Hello Kitty and Doraemon theme parks. It’s great as I have two young kids, though many of the places were fully occupied and I was not able to use them.”

The number of people stranded at the airport’s passenger terminal was the highest since the hub opened in 1992, airport operator Hokkaido Airport Terminal said.

Cathay Pacific apologised for the disruption, and urged patience from passengers due to the much smaller international terminal and less parking stands Cathay and other airlines operated from, making it more challenging to clear a backlog of flights.

In a statement on the decision to cancel scheduled flights, Rupert Hogg, the airline’s Chief Operating Officer said: “Our assessment, based on local forecasts, and the basis of decisions made with respect to flight cancellations, is that poor weather will be a continuing factor over the next four to five days, thereby exacerbating an already difficult situation.”



Category: Hong Kong

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