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A BUSINESS-TRAVEL TALE FROM TOKYO
By Joe Brancatelli
March 24, 2011 -- Two weeks after the earthquake and tsunami rocked Japan, we're still sifting through the emotional and physical wreckage.

But even as you watch the pictures of the death and the destruction and the drama, there's something you can't escape: You're watching pictures. No matter how much and how often you tell yourself what you're watching is real, you're just watching a picture show. Sadly, it's Godzilla without the monster although, if the wounded nuclear reactors don't miraculously heal, we may get Godzilla, too.

As I've said so many times in this space, the bottom line is that hearing the news ain't like being there. Nothing is real unless it's happening to you. Melanie Safka sang that a couple of lifetimes ago and I can't stop thinking about her song as I've watched those news reports from Japan. Or Libya. Or Syria. Or Yemen.

But I have what's real. At least as real as it gets for business travelers. Just hours after the earthquake hit on March 11, I got an E-mail from a JoeSentMe member. He was working in London, but his wife had been en route to Japan when the earthquake hit.

I'll let him tell the tale, which I've pieced together from the follow-up messages he so graciously sent. The italicized times are when I received his E-mails.

Does this mean much in a world where thousands are dead and part of a nation has been destroyed? No. It's just one business traveler's tale of a roundtrip to Tokyo at an inopportune moment. But it's real. And that's something.

Friday, March 11, 1 pm Eastern Time -- My wife was on Delta Flight 91 from Portland to Narita when the quake hit. They were about [90 minutes] out. At first, [the flight was] diverted to Nagoya, then Osaka. It finally turned north and landed at Sapporo. They were finally able to deboard at around 01:00 due to the flood of inbound flights being diverted.

Tuesday, March 15, 6:18 am Eastern Time -- Delta 91 was the first to land at Sapporo after circling for three hours off the coast of Japan. Scheduled arrival time at Narita was 16:30 or thereabouts. They landed at Sapporo at about 19:45. At around 01:00, they were finally let off the plane to do customs and immigration formalities. The flight crew was taken to a hotel for about five hours of sleep and they returned about 10:00. After my wife's flight landed, several more Delta flights came in along with [other diverted] United, American and international flights.

At first, it seemed like the code-share [flights] were getting preference. Not so. The airport authority in Sapporo handled things on first-to-arrive, first-to-get-service basis. The facilities [were] overwhelmed. My wife's [reaccommodation] flight left late afternoon to Narita. She ended up catching one of the very last trains of the day, first to Tokyo, then to our house. She got to our home about 30 hours after her scheduled arrival time.

Now the challenge is getting out. Trains and buses are not running or [operating] very sporadically to Narita. All airport-area hotels are booked solid. No shuttle buses either, due to fuel shortages. My wife has been told by Japan Railways that she can get to Narita by taking three different rail lines and connecting via various local lines. But the journey will be about eight hours versus a normal two-hour express run. And even that is iffy.

Wednesday, March 16, 9:03 pm Eastern Time -- The Limousine Buses seem to be running relatively regularly now from Yokohama and Tokyo. But trains are still iffy--and no Narita Express.

She left our house at 04:30 and caught the first train of the day to Yokohama. Even at that hour, it was standing room only. People could not depend on regular service, [so they] were grabbing anything they knew would be running. At Yokohama, she walked the four blocks to the Limousine Bus terminal and was able to get on a bus to Narita. Due to lack of traffic, she was at Narita by 08:30. Her flight does not leave until 15:30. She is in the Delta Sky Club. She said that the ticket counters at Narita Terminal One are jammed up. You need an extra hour or two just for check-in. At Delta, the [premium class] and Priority Medallion desks were pretty normal and fast. But other counters at Delta and at other airlines are packed.

Wednesday, March 16, 9:16 pm Eastern Time -- Some background for you. My wife and I own a home over there (she is Japanese) and we make the run across the pond six or seven times a year for time off or for business. We have been doing this for about 28 years now. I think that she has had an advantage in this unprecedented situation because [she has] so much local knowledge [and has] no language barrier. She was able to get to the real meat of what was working.

Thursday, March 17, 3:10 pm Eastern Time -- My wife made it back this morning on Delta Flight 90 to Portland. Here are some of her comments about what she saw:

1) The flight was supposedly booked full. But it was only about 1/3 full on departure. It seems people are not able to reach the airports. But Narita itself is operating relatively normally once you get there.

2) Gasoline for vehicles is in short supply. Taxis are limited both because of fuel and getting drivers to the garages. The rolling blackouts stop everything, including mass transit. Even the local bus service [is halted] due to lack of traffic signals.

3) She could not say enough about how helpful all the Delta flight crews and ground personnel were. In Sapporo, the captain of [Delta 91] stayed at the gate agent's desk to answer questions and pass on information as soon as he had it. All the passengers knew that as long as he was there, the plane wasn't leaving. When he did get word to get moving, he personally told everyone to get ready. And, mind you, this is at an airport where Delta does not fly.

That is about it for now. She is back [in Portland] and I am back from London. And, of course, we're happy to be together again.

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ABOUT JOE BRANCATELLI Joe Brancatelli is a publication consultant, which means that he helps media companies start, fix and reposition newspapers, magazines and Web sites. He's also the former executive editor of Frequent Flyer and has been a consultant to or columnist for more business-travel and leisure-travel publishing operations than he can remember. He started his career as a business journalist and created JoeSentMe in the dark days after 9/11 while he was stranded in a hotel room in San Francisco. He lives on the Hudson River in the tourist town of Cold Spring.

THE FINE PRINT All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Joe Brancatelli. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.

This column is Copyright 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright 2011 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.