1,600 Hongkongers stranded in Japan by severe weather flown home
Cathay Pacific flies back 1,600 city residents overnight and plans more special trips
More than 1,000 Hongkongers left stranded for days after a severe winter snowstorm swept through northern Japan and cancelled Christmas for many of them have returned to Hong Kong overnight.
Airlines scrambled to repatriate tired and frustrated travellers who had been stuck at a Hokkaido airport after the popular winter holiday destination was battered by its biggest snowstorm in more than 50 years.
Watch: Snowstorm traps Hongkongers in Sapporo
The storm 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 Airways overnight flew back 1,600 Hong Kong passengers in the early hours of Boxing Day. The airline said it planned to return more passengers later Monday and on Tuesday.
In anticipation of the weather deteriorating in the region, Hong Kong’s biggest airline cancelled several 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 of Sapporo.
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 fewer parking stands the airline and other carriers operated from, making it more challenging to clear a backlog of flights.
In a statement on the airline’s decision to cancel scheduled flights, COO Rupert Hogg 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.”
Additional reporting by Associated Press
Cathay Pacific said several of its flights had been rescheduled and were due to arrive back in Hong Kong from New Chitose Airport from Sunday night.
The carrier’s revised schedule to and from Hong Kong and New Chitose Airport as of noon Monday is:
CX581D: due to depart on December 24, took off at 12.14pm on December 26
CX580: due to depart on December 25, took off at 09:11am on December 26
CX2580: due to depart on December 25, took off at 10:32am on December 26
CX580: due to depart on December 26 was cancelled
CX2580D: due to depart on December 26 is delayed until December 27
CX582: due to depart on December 26 was cancelled
CX580: due to depart on December 27 was cancelled
CX582: due to depart on December 27 was cancelled
CX581D: due to depart on December 22, arrived at 3.36am on December 26
CX581D: due to depart on December 23, now due to arrive on December 26 at 9.53pm
CX581D: due to depart on December 24, flying via Tokyo Haneda, arrived at 3.33am on December 26
CX581: due to depart on December 25, now due to arrive on December 26 at 8.55pm
CX581: due to depart on December 26 is cancelled
CX583: due to depart on December 26 is cancelled
CX583: due to depart on December 27 is cancelled
Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon is providing alternative flight arrangements or refund on tickets. Passengers can rebook or reroute flights with fees waived for all Sapporo tickets issues worldwide booked for travel on or before December 29.
Hong Kong Airlines’ services to and from Hong Kong and New Chitose Airport were also affected. The revised schedule on December 26:
HX690: on December 26, took off at 7.56am
HX696D: on December 26, took off at 9.05am
HX693D: due to depart on December 24, arrived at 00.26am on December 26
HX697D: due to depart on December 25, now due to arrive on December 26 at 9.00pm
HX691: on December 26, pending arrival time
Source: Hong Kong Airport Authority Real Time Flight Information