Airlines escalates virus response
by Air Cargo News
European carriers led by British Airways said they’re quitting China as the deadly coronavirus spreads, though U.S. operators plan to retain some services for now.
BA took the most dramatic step, saying Thursday it will cease flights to Beijing and Shanghai until March 1 after acting on U.K. Foreign Office advice. Iberia, its Spanish sister carrier at IAG SA, is also suspending operations, while Deutsche Lufthansa AG, Air France and SAS AB said they’ll exit China until Feb. 9.
Airlines are severing links as the virus death toll rises above 170 and confirmed cases soar past 7,700. A decline of 10% in Chinese traffic could clip global passenger growth by 2.8 percentage points, reducing it to 1.4%, according to Nick Cunningham, an analyst at Agency Partners in London.
“The slowdown is likely to extend beyond China and to impact elective travel more widely,” Cunningham said. “Major corporations will limit travel, and if this goes on for a while, global traffic may not grow at all for the year.”
Almost 11% of flights scheduled to or from China were scrapped between Jan. 23 and Jan. 28, based on research from Cirium, which analyzes air travel. Moves to abandon routes to Beijing and Shanghai indicate escalating levels of concern, with both cities hundreds of kilometers from the focus of the viral outbreak around Wuhan in the country’s central Hubei province.
U.S. carriers are taking a more conservative approach to scrapping flights, with the three top operators paring timetables without exiting China completely, and citing lower demand due to the virus for the changes, rather than direct health concerns. The White House is leaving decisions on flights to airlines for now, Larry Kudlow, President Donald Trump’s economic adviser, said in Washington.
United Airlines Holdings Inc. will cut its 12 daily departures to China and Hong Kong to four, with the change to be implemented Feb. 9, running until March 27. It cited a significant drop in load factors for the move.
American Airlines Group Inc. is suspending flights from Los Angeles to Shanghai and Beijing over the same period, also citing lower demand, while continuing to serve the Chinese cities from its Dallas-Fort Worth base. Delta Air Lines Inc. will halve China flights to 21 a week from Feb. 6 through April 30.
The World Health Organization plans to provide an update later Thursday on whether it regards the outbreak as a “public health emergency of international concern.” The designation would give it powers to recommend travel curbs for cities, regions and countries, which might affect airlines still serving China.
Among those are Gulf operators Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways, which provide vital links to the world’s second largest economy via their vast transfer hubs, with 160 flights a week there, including Hong Kong.
Emirates, the largest long-haul airline, gets a third of sales from East Asia, including Australasia, and has been looking to add more China destinations to tap “extraordinary” demand growth, President Tim Clark said last year.
Air France pilot union SNPL advised members that they had the right to refuse to fly to China given the situation, and the carrier later announced services would cease. Dutch sister company KLM told Bloomberg that China remains part of its network, albeit with a reduced service.