A mass exodus from the southern resort island of Jeju began Monday afternoon by tourists stranded after snow closed the airport and forced ferries to stop running.
The island was cut off from the outside world for 42 hours over the weekend.
Some 70,000 people were stranded on the semitropical island after the biggest blizzard in 32 years hit Jeju City, where the airport is located.
The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport said 37 scheduled flights were resumed and 68 extra flights were run to move 21,556 people off the island between Monday afternoon and early Tuesday morning. Since some of the flights will run in the middle of the night, it also plans to extend the operations of subways, airport express trains and buses in Seoul.
The first flight out was an Eastar Jet flight bound for Gimpo International Airport in Seoul. It took off at around 2:45 p.m.
“Considering the emergency situation, we authorized flight operations 24 hours a day,” said Kim Bae-sung, an official at the Transport Ministry. The ministry temporarily lifted a ban on flights between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. at airports in Gimpo and Gimhae, South Gyeongsang, which serves Busan.
“It will take few days to complete transporting passengers,” Kim said.
After a gale warning and snow advisory for the region were lifted at noon on Monday, the ministry advanced resumption of flights, which were supposed to start at 8:00 p.m.
It took almost three hours for airlines to clear snow and ice from planes stuck on the tarmac in Jeju over the weekend, preparing for the great exodus.
The blizzard on Saturday, Sunday and early Monday dumped heavy layers of snow on the one main runway of Jeju and led to almost zero visibility. The runway was shut from 5:50 p.m. Saturday for 42 hours, canceling more than 800 flights scheduled to fly in and out of the island.
The Korea Meteorological Administration said 12 centimeters (4.7 inches) of snow fell on Saturday in Jeju City, its biggest blizzard since 1984, when 13.9 centimeters of snow fell. More than 1 meter of snow fell in the highest mountain in South Korea, Mount Halla, a favored tourist spot in Jeju. Ferries also resumed operations, as high winds and waves eased Monday afternoon. The wind and wave warning was downgraded to an advisory for coastal areas near Jeju.
On Sunday, Jeju was packed with tourists looking for a place to sleep. Some 1,700 people stayed at the airport Sunday night, making new friends and memories, some of which were actually favorable.
“This is an invaluable memory that I slept in public with my big family in Jeju,” said Kim Hyun-woo, 21, who visited the holiday island with 19 family members including grandparents and relatives. “The owner of a restaurant that we visited sent us meals for free after hearing of our plight.”
Despite the inconvenience to tens of thousands of travelers, they are unlikely to get any compensation because the cause was the weather.
According to the aviation law, if an airline cancels a flight due to an uncontrollable event such as a natural disaster, there is no liability for the airline to compensate passengers.
BY KIM SO-HEE, CHOI CHOONG-IL and MOON BYUNG-JU [firstname.lastname@example.org]