Typhoon Jebi highlights vulnerability of offshore Kansai airport

Kyodo

The typhoon that crippled Kansai International Airport and left thousands of passengers stranded at the facility has exposed the vulnerability of airports built offshore, while also highlighting the challenges facing airport operators in delivering the kind of information the public needs during emergencies.

Japan’s third-busiest airport, located on a man-made island in Osaka Bay, was flooded Tuesday by high storm tides caused by Typhoon Jebi. A bridge providing the only road and rail access to the airport from the mainland was also severely damaged after a 2,591-ton tanker slammed into the bridge after being swept away by strong winds and waves.

Up to about 7,800 passengers and employees were believed to have stayed overnight at the terminal buildings and nearby hotel conference halls. Many were transported by high-speed boats from the island on Wednesday.

Dry biscuits, water and blankets were provided.

“I slept on the floor for the first time in my life,” Kanae Shudo, a 69-year-old woman from Yamaguchi Prefecture who was among the passengers trapped at the airport, said Wednesday morning. She also said the airport provided no useful information and restrooms were dark because of the power outage.

Masanobu Sangawa, 67, from Kagawa Prefecture, was fuming at the airport.

“Workers just seemed to be standing there, doing nothing,” he said.

He wanted to know when the situation would improve, but airport staffers only told him that they are not in charge of the issue and that he should ask others.

“This is really lousy crisis management. It’s embarrassing that we call our country a great tourism destination.”

An official at Kansai Airports, which runs the airport, admitted that the calamity was “completely beyond the scope of our assumptions.”

“Who could have imagined that a tanker would crash into the connecting bridge?” one Kansai Airports source said. Another source said flooding occurred “in wider areas than were estimated in hazard maps.”

On Tuesday, tidal levels rose around Osaka Bay and a record-high 3.29-meter tide was measured at Osaka Port, according to the Meteorological Agency.

The airport operator said it followed disaster manuals and set up a task force to handle the situation. Areas that usually have restricted access were opened because they were not affected by the power outages.

“But we couldn’t deliver information to the people,” one of the sources said.

Experts have repeatedly pointed to the weakness of the airport’s transportation infrastructure, with the connecting bridge often facing closures when winds are strong.

According to the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism, the man-made island where the airport is located has been gradually sinking for years. “The conditions of its location are tough,” a ministry official said.

A runway that was built on the part of Kansai airport’s artificial island that was constructed first was submerged as the typhoon ripped through the area.

Kansai airport’s embankment had earlier been raised by 2.2 meters. But in dealing with disasters, airports tend to focus on measures to ensure quick evacuation and recovery of the facilities rather than improving the physical environment itself, not just because the latter could be costly but because there are height restrictions in place to avoid affecting takeoffs and landings of airplanes.

A 2014 study by the land ministry on possible tsunami risks linked to a massive Nankai Trough earthquake that is predicted to occur in Japan within the next 30 years showed that the part of the Kansai airport island that was built first is more susceptible to land subsidence and flooding than the portion that was made later.

Aviation expert Yoshitomo Aoki warned that wind and rain are “inevitable risks” for airports facing the sea, including Tokyo’s Haneda airport, the busiest in Japan.

“Unpredictable events can always happen. We need to discuss what are the realistic predictions (and take measures against them),” he said.

The impact of the damage to the key gateway to the Kansai region may be huge. The airport has been increasingly used by foreign passengers, particularly those from China, South Korea and Southeast Asian countries, as it has been expanding access for budget airlines.

A 69-year-old South Korean who was stranded at the airport said the supplies as well as information provided from the airport were not enough. “I had a good image of Japan about its omotenashi hospitality, but that changed,” the traveler said.

In fiscal 2017, the number of domestic and international passengers that used the airport hit 28.8 million, the highest since its opening, according to data released by the operator.