TOKYO (Reuters) - Airlines scrambled on Thursday to fly thousands of passengers out of Tokyo as fears about Japan's nuclear crisis mounted and the United States joined other nations urging their citizens to leave.
As an increasing number of governments from Britain to South Korea advised their citizens to leave and avoid unnecessary travel to Japan, there was a sharp drop in demand to fly to Japan coupled with a rush to leave.
Japan is taking desperate measures to contain the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima nuclear power plant crippled by the massive earthquake and tsunami that devastated the northeast on Friday.
The U.S. State Department said the government had chartered aircraft to help Americans leave Japan and had authorised the voluntary departure of family members of diplomatic staff in Tokyo, Nagoya and Yokohama -- about 600 people.
"The situation has deteriorated in the days since the tsunami and ... the situation has grown at times worse with potential greater damage and fallout from the reactor," White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
The U.S. travel advisory comes after Australia urged its citizens with non-essential roles in Japan to consider leaving Tokyo and the eight prefectures most damaged by the earthquake due to infrastructure problems rather than nuclear concerns.
"We have a real problem in terms of the infrastructure in Japan. We have uncertainty of power supply, we have problems with train services, we have problems with public transport services, many schools have closed and there is this repeated series of aftershocks," Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd said.
France has also advised its citizens in Japan to get out or head to southern Japan. The French embassy in Tokyo said it had asked Air France to prepare planes for the evacuation of French nationals from Japan.
French Environment Minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet called the situation in Japan a "catastrophe".
Some governments have started testing their citizens returning from Japan for radiation levels.
South Korea has set up residual radiation detection gates at Incheon and Gimpo international airports that have direct flights to Japan, the South's Yonhap news agency reported.
The government plans to set up similar monitoring at the port of Busan for people coming back on ferries, according to Vice Science Minister Kim Chang-kyung.
NEARLY EMPTY JAPAN-BOUND FLIGHTS
Airlines did not provide much information on passenger loads in and out of Japan, but some travellers reported nearly one-way traffic by passengers eager to leave the country. Japan-bound travels said their flights were nearly empty.
Private jet companies said they were inundated with requests for help with evacuation.
Scores of flights to Japan were halted or rerouted this week on fears of radiation leaks from the stricken nuclear plant.
But the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA), which represents 17 scheduled international airlines in the region, said domestic flights within Japan were operating normally as were most international flights.
"Domestic flights are now operating according to the normal schedules," AAPA director general Andrew Herdman said in a statement.
"International airlines are also operating full schedules to and from Japan, although a number of carriers have adjusted their schedules to minimise overnight stops and related crew changes in Tokyo. Air cargo services are operating normally," he said.
U.S. airlines United Continental Holdings Inc, Delta Air Lines Inc and AMR Corp's American Airlines said they were operating a normal schedule.
International Airways Group's British Airways was flying a full schedule as well. A spokeswoman for BA said the airline was looking at alternative options for its flights.
Deutsche Lufthansa had said it was diverting flights away from Tokyo to Osaka and Nagoya, at least until the weekend.
Air China said it had cancelled flights to Tokyo from Beijing and Shanghai, mainly due to lack of operational capacity at some airports.
(Writing by Sugita Katyal, editing by Miral Fahmy)