Govt makes, then drops, request to halt bookings on flights to Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
The departure lobby for international flights is seen largely deserted at Haneda Airport in Ota Ward, Tokyo, on Wednesday.

The transport ministry requested domestic and foreign airlines early this week to stop accepting new reservations for all inbound flights to Japan until the end of December, as part of border control measures against the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, and airlines widely complied with the request on Wednesday. However, the government dropped the request Thursday morning, following a backlash from Japanese expatriates who were planning to return home during the year-end and New Year holidays.

Ahead of the announcement on Thursday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said that the request “had caused confusion.” He also told reporters at the Prime Minister’s Office that he had instructed the Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Ministry to give consideration to Japanese nationals planning to return home.

At a subsequent press conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said, “The request was made as an emergency measure from a standpoint of precaution, but it was withdrawn” in response to the prime minister’s instruction.

According to airline sources, reservations on inbound flights in December had been increasing because many Japanese living abroad want to return to spend the year-end and New Year period in Japan. The monthlong suspension of new flight reservations was supposed to apply even to Japanese nationals, meaning that those wishing to return to Japan would temporarily be unable to do so unless they had already made a booking.

The ministry had said this “emergency measure” was taken to stem the spread of infections while the full picture of the omicron variant remains “unclear.”

Under the measure, the ministry had requested domestic and foreign airlines on Monday to suspend new bookings for a month, until the end of December. This followed a government decision to lower the daily limit on the number of people entering Japan, including Japanese nationals, from about 5,000 to about 3,500 as a measure to tighten border controls. ANA Holdings, which owns All Nippon Airways, and Japan Airlines had responded to the request by suspending new bookings Wednesday.

In a related move to counter the virus, the government will add residents of Japan who return from South Korea, Switzerland, parts of Canada — Alberta, Quebec and British Columbia — and the French territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean to the list of countries and regions subject to a quarantine measure that requires staying in government-designated facilities.

The quarantine period is six days for people returning from South Korea and three days for those returning from the other three countries and regions. The period will also be extended to six days for returnees from Australia, Sweden, Germany and Portugal, which are already subject to a three-day quarantine.

These new measures will be effective from Friday. The number of countries and regions subject to such quarantine due to the omicron variant will total 31.