Nearly 200 Singapore Airlines passengers were stuck in northern Japan over the weekend for about 57 hours after heavy snow closed airport runways and caused hundreds of flight cancellations.
Most of them finally made it back to Singapore from Hokkaido early yesterday morning, with some having spent Saturday night sleeping on the airport floor as surrounding hotels were fully booked.
While prospective travellers are continuing with their Hokkaido plans and the weather has improved, tour agencies are monitoring the situation.
One passenger, Mr Jason Goh, 45, who returned to Singapore with his wife and 13-year-old daughter, said there was "a lot of confusion" at New Chitose Airport in Hokkaido's capital Sapporo, a tourist hot spot.
He was supposed to take an eight-hour flight on SQ661 on Friday at 7.55am Singapore time (8.55am Sapporo time).
An SIA spokesman said there were 192 passengers on board, but as the runways were closed, the flight was rescheduled to depart the next morning. The flight was renumbered to SQ9661.
But Mr Goh boarded the same plane twice on Saturday, only to have the flights cancelled each time. The second time, the plane had started moving and he thought he could finally return home.
"But then the crew suddenly told us it was cancelled. They said no other airports could take us and the pilot had exceeded his duty hours," said Mr Goh, a senior human resource executive who was on a tour by travel agency SA Tours.
"Then why did they ask us to board the plane again?"
By then, hot meals at the airport's foodcourt were also sold out and his family had to make do with snacks to ease their hunger. The floor which he slept on was cold and hard, he said.
When SQ9661 finally took off on Sunday evening, many passengers clapped, relieved that they did not have to spend another night in the airport, Mr Goh recalled.
"I just wanted to get out of the country," he said.
Upon arrival, affected passengers were given in-flight gift vouchers for buying duty-free items on SIA flights or through mail order, as well as notices of the delay to help them make travel insurance claims.
SIA said Flight SQ9661 was further delayed on Saturday as the airport runways remained closed.
On why passengers were again asked to board that day only for the flight to be cancelled, the airline said it was aware that the crew would not be able to operate on a direct flight to Singapore as they would have exceeded their duty hours. So, the airline wanted to divert them to Hong Kong or Taipei and arrange for a change of crew before proceeding to Singapore.
"However, other factors such as the need for further de-icing as well as obtaining air traffic control clearance created a further delay which resulted in our crew not being able to operate to Hong Kong or Taipei. It was then that we decided that the aircraft could not take off," said SIA's spokesman.
Due to a shortage of available hotel rooms, some passengers slept in the airport. SIA issued them blankets, meal boxes and breakfast vouchers.
SQ9661 finally left Sapporo with 132 passengers on Sunday evening and arrived in Singapore at 1.02am yesterday. The remaining passengers were rebooked on alternative flights, said the SIA spokesman.
SA Tours managing director Kay Swee Pin said its group of 34 passengers have since returned safely.
Travel agency Chan Brothers Travel, which has several tour groups of between 20 and 35 people each departing daily to Hokkaido until the end of the month, said their itineraries have not been affected by the weather conditions.
"However, we are closely monitoring the situation and changes will be made if necessary as customer safety is our utmost priority," said a spokesman.
This comes even as the the Japan Meteorological Agency said the worst of the bad weather that had grounded hundreds of flights and train services in Hokkaido last weekend is over.
According to its seven-day forecast, snowfall is still expected on Japan's northern island, though not to the extent of the heavy snowfall that had pummelled Sapporo.
As of yesterday, domestic and international flights, as well as local train and tram services, had resumed operations.
Sapporo had been blanketed by 65cm of snow by 3pm on Saturday - the heaviest snowfall recorded in early December in nearly 30 years. On Sunday, the snow cover at 7pm was 58cm, the Sapporo District Meteorological Observatory said.
At New Chitose Airport, a total of 252 flights were cancelled on Saturday and another 162 on Sunday, Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun said.
Meanwhile, JR Hokkaido railway company said a total of 192 train runs had to be suspended on Saturday, and another 56 on Sunday.
•Additional reporting by Walter Sim