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Sendai Airport is surrounded by waters in Miyagi prefecture (state), Japan, after a ferocious tsunami spawned by one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded slammed Japan's eastern coast Friday, March 11, 2011. (AP Photo/Kyodo News)


The devastating tsunami that flooded Japan's Sendai Airport has left the world's airline industry scrambling to reschedule flights.

Global carriers cancelled or diverted flights into and out of Japan after Friday's massive earthquake, which at one point shut down Tokyo's Narita Airport, the Asian country's largest air terminal.

Air Canada cancelled its Toronto-Narita and Vancouver-Narita routes, but is hoping to restart service this weekend. An airline spokesman said its flights Friday were rerouted to Sapporo after the shutdown of Narita.

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While the Japanese quake won't have the wide-ranging financial impact of last year's Icelandic volcanic ash that disrupted much of Europe's airspace for weeks, the dramatic flooding of Sendai Airport serves as a stark reminder of the fragile nature of the world's airline sector.

"It's a disruption for a week or so for flights in and out of Japan, assuming nothing else happens," said Jacques Kavafian, president of AeroFinance International, a financial consulting firm to the airline industry. "There could be two or three days of backlog to clear. There are problems still getting to and from airports that are still operating."

The deluge of water that submerged Sendai Airport's runways and terminal will have the largest impact on Japan Airlines Corp., All Nippon Airways Co. Ltd. and other Asian carriers, he said, noting that Sendai is a regional airport that focuses on short-haul routes within Japan and to China and South Korea.

Sendai, known as the "city of trees," is a popular tourist stop for Japan's cherry blossom tours in the spring.

The suspension of rail services and temporary closing of Narita and Haneda airports in Tokyo left tens of thousands of travellers stranded or grounded without departures.

Japan is becoming an increasingly important market for Air Canada, which plans to increase its Calgary-Narita non-stop service to five flights week from three, effective March 26.

Air Canada also hopes to expand service from British Columbia, though it decided earlier this year to delay plans for non-stop flights between Vancouver and Tokyo's Haneda Airport, citing lower-than-expected demand.

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On Friday, as an array of global carriers halted flights to and from Japan, change fees were waived.

"Air Canada has revised its ticketing policy for customers booked on affected flights to facilitate changes to bookings," the carrier said on its website. "Those customers wishing to make alternate travel arrangements can do so without penalty, space permitting, using our online rebooking tool."

The airline sector, already seeking to navigate through high jet fuel prices that have sent airfares soaring, is bracing for slowing growth in travel demand in 2011 after the industry roared back last year after the recession.

"Should oil prices weaken economic growth or [seat]capacity accelerate, this will weaken the ability of airlines to recover costs, and profits will suffer," the International Air Transport Association cautioned this week.

AeroFinance International's Mr. Kavafian said he and his business partners still plan to forge ahead with Maple Fun Tours, which wants to introduce Canadian holiday packages for Japanese visitors. The Vancouver-based tour operator said last fall that it wanted to start flights in June, but then decided to postpone the launch until mid-2012.

Mr. Kavafian, who is also chief executive officer of parent Maple Fun Travel, said there were snags in securing jets in a timely fashion for routes planned from Osaka and Nagoya to Vancouver.

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WestJet Airlines Ltd. co-founder Mark Hill and former Air Canada chief financial officer Robert Peterson are part of the venture to tap the market for Japanese tourists.

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About the Author

Brent Jang is a business reporter in The Globe and Mail’s Vancouver bureau. He joined the Globe in 1995. His former positions include transportation reporter in Toronto, energy correspondent in Calgary and Western columnist for Report on Business. He holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University of Alberta, where he served as Editor-in-Chief of The Gateway student newspaper. Mr. More

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