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(2nd LD) Jeju Airport resumes operations after near 2-day shutdown

All News 18:30 January 25, 2016

(ATTN: UPDATES with more details in paras 4, 6-7, 9; ADDS last 4 paras; CHANGES photo)

SEJONG/JEJU, Jan. 25 (Yonhap) -- Jeju International Airport on South Korea's southernmost resort island resumed operations Monday after being shut down by heavy snow for some 45 hours, the government said.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said an Eastar Jet B737-700 passenger jet with 149 people on board took off safely at 2:48 p.m. after ground service personnel cleared the runway and removed ice and snow from the aircraft.

About 36 minutes later, a Korean Air B747-400 with 404 people on-board departed for Seoul's Gimpo International Airport.

The resumption comes after heavy snow, sub-zero temperatures and strong winds forced one of South Korea's busiest airports to go dark early Saturday evening, which resulted in flight cancellations and thousands of stranded travelers.

Exact numbers have not been made public, but it is estimated some 86,900 people have been stuck, with 1,400 having been forced to stay at the airport terminal.

The local weather service lifted the heavy wind and snow warnings earlier in the day as the cold high-pressure front that engulfed most of the country started to weaken.

Airport authorities and the transport ministry said the 34 planes stuck at the airport are being cleared of ice and snow and allowed to take off, although this can take some time.

Passengers who had booked flights leaving the resort island have been contacted in advance to get ready for departure, although there may be some congestion in processing. Upwards of 7,000 people may try to leave at once, authorities predicted.

The transport ministry said under normal conditions, Jeju airport, with one main operational runway, can accommodate 34 takeoffs and landings slots per hour. The airport in the northern part of the island can process around 40,000 passengers daily.

It said because so many people have been stranded and all want to get back home as soon as possible, flight operations at both Jeju and Gimpo airports will be pushed back temporarily past the normal 11 p.m. mark.

The ministry said that in order to help people stranded on Jeju, airlines are expected to reroute more flights, in addition to regularly scheduled flights. This can add more seats and speed up departures. Korean Air, South Korea's No. 1 carrier, said it will operate an extra 60 flights to the island overnight that can ferry some 13,000 people off the island by 6 a.m. Tuesday. Asiana Airlines said it will send 43 flights that can handle 9,900 passengers.

Related to the suspension of operations, which is the longest in the airport's recent history, airport authorities said unprecedented severe conditions overtaxed the ability to cope.

"Roughly 13 centimeters of snow, coupled with the weather falling to minus 6.1 degree Celsius and cross-winds of upward to 26.5 meters per second was enough to halt operations," a source said. "The airport used all equipment and personnel at its disposal yet it was not enough."

He pointed out that while the airport has been modernized in 2009 and again in late 2012, to cope with a spike in traffic, the physical limitation of the main 3,180-meter long runway that has an inefficient taxiway system delays getting planes off the runway in a speedy manner.

Reflecting such shortcoming, and predictions that the airport will reach full capacity in 2018-2019, the government announced last year it will build a second airport to service the island. The new airport, which will be built more inland, should start operations in 2025 and be able to handle the largest airplanes, like the A380 super jumbo.

yonngong@yna.co.kr
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