Natural disasters collide with airports in Japan
Tuesday, September 11, 2018
It’s been a challenging start to September for airport operators in Japan. The country has faced the effects of a typhoon and a 6.7-magnitude earthquake.
Neither are unusual phenomena in the Land of the Rising Sun. However, in these particular instances, major airports and their travelers were severely impacted by the events.
Typhoon Jebi hit the eastern part of the island nation on Sept. 4 and was the worst experienced in 25 years. It caused damage to buildings and infrastructure, loss of power supplies, and towering seas and storm surges along the shoreline.
Near Osaka Kansai Airport, an 89-meter tanker ship was forced towards the shore, colliding with the road bridge connecting the island airport with the mainland. As a result, part of the bridge shifted, forcing its closure to traffic.
Meanwhile, the surge in the seas led to Kansai becoming flooded over much of its runways, taxiways and parking aprons, forcing the airport to close to flights. Some 8,000 passengers and airport workers were forced to spend the night in the terminal until winds died down enough to allow evacuation via ferries or the undamaged portion of the bridge.
The airport managed to reopen one runway to a limited timetable of domestic flights last Friday.
Kansai Airport’s operator admitted it had not sufficiently prepared for the typhoon.
At a news conference, Yoshiyuki Yamaya, president of Kansai Airports, said, "We geared up for a typhoon, but the typhoon was far stronger than we had expected," adding, "We were too optimistic."
A second disaster struck the country on Sept. 6, when an earthquake hit the northern island of Hokkaido. CCTV footage at Sapporo’s New Chitose Airport showed the wings of aircraft parked at the gate rocking during the quake. It left the airport closed for two days while damage was assessed and repaired, and power restored across the region.
The closure caused havoc with a backlog of thousands of passengers left trying to rearrange travel as flights resumed. Many had been forced to sleep in the terminal as hotels were fully booked, with hundreds of blankets being distributed.
Two natural disasters in one week is unusual even for a country like Japan where occurrences are quite common. However, in the case of Osaka Kansai in particular, it raises the question about the ability to cope when challenged by the sea and when vital supply lines like bridges are destroyed.
A number of airports around the country are built offshore on reclaimed land and, while all were designed with flood barriers in place, a catastrophic event like a storm surge or tsunami could leave them susceptible to significant damage.
During its news conference, Kansai’s operators admitted that in none of its disaster planning scenarios did it envisage losing the connecting road and rail bridge. The waves encountered during Jebi were also higher than imagined during scenario planning and resulted not only in the disabling of the airport’s runways, but also the basement disaster response center.
Airports of such international importance need to ensure they are able to cope in such scenarios. Risking passenger safety and comfort and causing them to be stranded is not something that will be tolerated repeatedly, and Kansai’s operator needs to demonstrate it can return to full strength as quickly as possible whilst amending its response planning for future events like this.
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