Austrian and Lufthansa test Japan flights for signs of radiation

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Austrian Airlines yesterday sent a radiation expert from the Austrian armed forces on its scheduled flight to Tokyo Narita to measure radioactivity levels and determine whether the airline considers it safe to continue operating flights to Japan.

The 9.0-magnitude earthquake and subsequent tsunami which struck the north-east coast of Japan on 11 March has caused a series of explosions at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, sparking fears that dangerous levels of radiation have been released into the atmosphere.

The Vienna-based carrier is currently holding a "crisis meeting" to decide whether to operate today's flight to Tokyo, says an Austrian spokesman. If the carrier decides to go ahead with the flight, due to depart at 17.25, it will send another radiation expert to take further measurements. Austrian operates its Tokyo flights using Boeing 777-200ER aircraft.

The airline requested help from the Austrian armed forces as a "safety measure", says the spokesman. The expert took specialised equipment on to the flight to test radiation levels on approach to the airport.

"There were no findings, therefore, we landed a couple of hours ago," the spokesman adds. The expert stayed on the aircraft during the 90min turnaround and flew back to Vienna, via Seoul.

Austrian's parent company Lufthansa is also taking action to measure radioactivity levels on all of its aircraft as they return to Germany from Japan.

A Lufthansa spokeswoman says the airport fire services at Munich and Frankfurt airports are scanning and checking each returning aircraft for radiation "as a precautionary measure". Lufthansa has been carrying out these checks since 13 March.

So far, these tests have not found any evidence of unsafe radioactivity levels, says the spokeswoman. However, should this change Lufthansa will "take appropriate action".

The carrier is re-routing today's four Tokyo-bound flights to Osaka and Nagoya, via Seoul, but this decision is related to passenger demand and is unconnected to radioactivity concerns, says the spokeswoman.

Not all airlines are taking the same precautions as Lufthansa and Austrian. British Airways, for instance, is not carrying out radiation tests on its aircraft as they return from Japan at present.

"We're following advice from the Japanese authorities, who are saying there is no need to test yet," says a BA spokesman, adding that "if we feel we need to bring in such a regime, we won't hesitate to do so".