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January 22, 2006

Narita nightmare

Sorry - I have been off-line for awhile. I will update this with the reasons why soon, but in the meantime I have to go through my experiences getting back to Japan. It is surreal.

I have been in San Diego for the last week. I left Friday...total flight time is 14 hours, so I was not looking forward to it. If only it was that easy.

My flight left at 730am from San Diego. That was uneventful - great weather, no delays etc. I made it to San Francisco by 9am. This is where things get crazy. The first thing I noticed was that my 1050am flight had been delayed until 2pm. Not a good sign. And when I got to the check in counter, it was even worse because they were saying the actual delay could be closer to eight hours.

I briefly thought it would be nice to spend some time in San Francisco, but arriving at Narita at 11pm did not appeal to me, so I took the option of switching to a different airline. They put me on a Northwest flight that left at 12pm - I would only be an hour late (430pm) getting into Tokyo. It sounded good to me.

My colleagues back in Tokyo warned that there would be snow on Saturday afternoon, but I did not think much of it. That would prove to be a big mistake.

The flight was uneventful...I slept a little, watched a few movies and read my book. Sort of like the quiet before the storm.

We were put into a holding pattern as we arrived in Tokyo. Circling around in stormy weather is not my idea of a good time, but it only lasted 30 minutes so that was not so bad. And, eventually, we were cleared to land. It was snowing pretty heavily and we did not break through the cloud cover until we had almost landed.

I was quite happy when we were on the ground.

Unfortunately, our gate was still being used by an outbound plane so we were directed to park out on the tarmac. Because of the weather they need to de-ice the planes before take-off and it was taking longer than they thought.

What they didn't tell us is that they did not have enough de-icing equipment and that no flights were taking off. Eventually we found that out. In fact, we had a lot of time to think about it.

We landed at 430pm - we exited the plane at 1045pm. That is right - more than SIX HOURS on the tarmac. How can you explain that? The flight crew were excellent and everyone remained fairly calm, but you had to wonder why no one would come and take us in. (I found out later that it could have been worse...one flight actually got to the gate, but there was no one to move the jetway up to the plane. They waited eight hours...)

Needless to say, it did not get any better - passport control and immigration were packed with late arrivals and people from cancelled flights. It took 45 minutes to get through.

And it was still not over. Because the trains and busses had stopped running. the only option for leaving Narita Airport (70km from Tokyo) was by taxi. I assumed the Y25,000 fare to central Tokyo would put people off. But there were 200 people in line. I waited 90 minutes and saw three taxis arrive. Meanwhile, empty buses were parked all over the place.

I popped back into the terminal to warm up and bought a few beers from the only place that was open. There were hundreds of people in the arrivals lobby and someone had passed out a few blankets. I had resigned myself to sleeping on the floor and getting an early train.

Sometime around 3am I managed to jump onto a charter bus taking a group of people to Makuhari/Tokyo Disneyland, which is more than halfway to Tokyo. Most of those had been given rooms by the airline (not available for me as I was not connecting to another flight) and we were told that only people going to the hotel could catch that bus. Which was not much of a problem.

"I'm sorry, you can only take this bus if you have a reservation..."
"I do!"

Once we got to the hotel, I shared a taxi to Shinjuku Station and then took another from there to Akasaka, somehow managing to find the only taxi driver in Tokyo who did not know where Akasaka was. So, I got to see Omotesando and Roppongi on the way. I arrived home at 5am. Madness.

Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world, but a simple snowstorm closed the airport and left thousands of people stranded. There were solutions, but the people in charge were incapable of acting on their own initiative when contingency plans proved inadequate. This is the same week that the Tokyo Stock Exchange closed because it could not handle heavy trading volumes. Draw your own conclusions.

Posted by Kirk on January 22, 2006 02:21 PM


I know how you feel. About 10,000 people were left stranded overnight at Narita Airport on Saturday night trying to get out.
The Management at the Airport was DISGRACEFUL. They did their best to keep us in the dark by Lying and keeping information from us. We were not given blankets, food was hard to get and were not told when our flight to Sydney was to be rescheduled.
Our original flight was due to leave at 9 :00 pm on Saturday, no announcement was made to say that it was delayed and then at 8:00 am in the morning we noticed that it was listed on one monitor for 18:30 on Sunday. They did not list a gate number and a large group of passengers managed to get some information from Airport staff who reluctantly told us that it might leave from gate 62.
At 18:00 when the JAL plane parked at this gate was being pushed away, it became obvious that the plane was not going to leave from this gate. One of the passengers managed to locate an obscure sign that said the plane was leaving from another gate and we all made our way to this gate which was some distance away. This proved to be the correct gate, but at 18:30 it looked like there might not be any plane there either and we all felt we were being lied to again. A riot almost started, security guards arrived and it was all very distressing.
The problem was that the crowd did not believe their stories and we all felt that they were telling lies to buy more time. I personally think if we had not kicked up a fuss they would have made us stay another night.
As it was we were put onto the plane at 22:00 and left waiting another 2 hours while they tried to locate 50 missing passengers at the Airport. They probably made no announcements, and did not display any information on any monitors to say that the plane was leaving. As it was 18 people were left behind and are probably still there now.
I think the management at Narita Airport are to blame, they were inconspicuous and left it to the poor girls at the counters to lie to us on their behalf.

Disgruntled JAL passenger.

Posted by: Barry at January 25, 2006 07:22 AM

Can't believe it. We had such a case in Germany recently where a BA flight was kept on the ground for 7 hours as flight control delayed slot every 30 minutes by 30 minutes. Couple of passengers are now taking BA to court because of kidnapping. Will see how that goes

Posted by: Thomas at January 27, 2006 06:31 AM