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Airport, airlines blasted over blizzard

SEOUL/JEJUDO ISLAND -- A nearly three-day airport shutdown on the southern resort island of Jejudo due to heavy snowfall and strong winds ended Monday afternoon, with mounting questions over a lackadaisical response by the airport authorities and air carriers that failed to minimize customer inconvenience at times of natural disasters. 

Travelers wait on the floor at Jeju International Airport`s passenger terminal early Monday. (Yonhap)
Travelers wait on the floor at Jeju International Airport`s passenger terminal early Monday. (Yonhap)


As of 2:48 p.m., air carriers had started to transport passengers who were stranded at the airport and nearby areas for 45 straight hours, but they were met with fierce criticism over their confused reaction and lack of countermeasures that aggravated customer discomfort.

Choi Kun-young, a 32-year-old office worker, told The Korea Herald on Monday that most of the people who stayed at the airport were passengers on budget air carriers, as they kept changing plans over who would get on the plane first when airport operations resumed.

“Bigger carriers such as Korean Air and Asiana Airlines sent messages to passengers in real-time that they don‘t need to wait at the airport, and they would allocate seats in order of flights canceled. But Jin Air told passengers holding standby tickets to wait indefinitely, nearly threatening us that they would invalidate tickets if not present at the airport when calling numbers,” said Choi, who visited Jejudo Island on a family trip via the low-cost carrier owned by Korean Air.

“Families, particularly with children and seniors, struggled to survive the cold at the airport, and to find a space to lay down and eat. Most of the people were budget air carrier passengers like me,” he said.

Chances of getting special planes sent by low-cost carriers are slim, as they don‘t have as many planes as other major carriers.

Other passengers also pointed out that budget air carriers seemed to have no protocol for emergency cases, shifting the responsibility to customers.

Not only budget carriers, local reports also lashed out at the state-run airport, noting that it had no guidelines to better deal with stranded passengers due to heavy snowfall.

About 90,000 passengers were stranded after Jeju International Airport closed operations from Saturday, due to the biggest snowfall in 32 years and high winds. Neither airports nor air carriers are responsible for compensating damages caused by natural disasters. 

But passengers raised concerns, saying they could have at least been provided accurate information and alternative places to stay outside the airport. Relief packages including food and blankets were provided, but were not enough to cover the thousands of passengers, they added.

Airport authorities and air carriers said it was impossible to operate flights as it kept snowing even as they tried to clear the runway and defrost the airplane exteriors.

“It was perhaps the first time in history that the heavy snowfall and strong winds made it impossible to operate flights,” said an official at an air carrier.

Even after the Transport Ministry ordered the airport to resume operations, it appears the carriers will take two to three days to clear the backlog of transporting all the angry passengers, another official said, requesting anonymity. 

The air carriers are likely to suffer huge financial losses too, due to the airport paralysis, he said, without elaborating.

The ministry said it would deploy 190 flights to Jejudo Island to transfer nearly 39,000 passengers on Monday alone.

Despite measures by the authorities, the airport is expected to suffer from complaints by customers -- both Korean and foreign travelers.

The airport didn’t have any Chinese-speaking officials until Saturday morning to deal with hundreds of tourists running about in confusion, according to reports. 

Many people ended up stranded at the airport simply because they didn’t know where to go, the reports added, raising the possibility that Jeju‘s lax response could tarnish its reputation as a popular tourist destination.

An official at the Transport Ministry said Jeju has no protocol specifically on how to deal with such heavy snowfall. The airport and the local government were following existing guidelines drawn up for other regions.

By Cho Chung-un and Chung Joo-won (christory@heraldcorp.com)

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