Paris: Lufthansa has placed a doctor on board every flight to Mexico; American Airlines has issued cabin crews with medical kits; British Airways is distributing face masks; and Alaska Airways is removing pillows as fears of a swine flu pandemic rattle the global aviation industry.
The last thing needed by an industry that was already spiralling towards a $4.7 billion loss this year, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), was another health scare like the SARS virus or the avian flu outbreaks that have hit airlines over the past 12 years.
Click here to watch video
So carriers are doing their utmost to reassure passengers that in the absence of travel restrictions by the World Health Organization (WHO), air travel is still safe, while accommodating those who may not wish to fly.
So far, cancellations have been minimal, European airlines say, though the situation is more complicated in the Americas. An industry that has learned the lessons of previous epidemics—the avian flu crises in 1997 and 2004 and the SARS outbreak in 2003—is better prepared this time around, while improved communication on the progress of the disease means that travellers are less inclined to panic, IATA said.
“It was a much more hysterical situation then than we’re seeing now,” said Tony Concil, an IATA spokesman, recalling the SARS crisis of 2003, when information about the disease was patchy. Traffic to Asia plummeted by 50%, and about 24% worldwide, in the three months ending in May that year.
“In the SARS crisis we had countries saying ’We won’t fly to Asia,’ and countries with no SARS cases were impacted,” Concil said.
Still, Giovanni Bisignani, IATA’s chief executive, warned earlier last week that the timing of the swine influenza outbreak ”could not be worse” for an industry already wound tight by a shrinking economy that had sent passenger demand into a nosedive. It was too soon, he said, to measure the fallout.
Air Canada has cancelled all its flights to Mexico until 1 June. Continental Airlines, the biggest US carrier that flies to Mexico, said on Friday that it would temporarily cut its capacity there by 40%. American Airlines said it was watching demand in response to the outbreak, officially known as influenza A/H1N1.
In Asia, Cathay Pacific, the biggest carrier in Hong Kong, said it would allow cabin staff members to wear face masks at work, reversing a previous decision. China has suspended flights from Mexico to Shanghai, the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, said on Saturday, and Japanese companies like Panasonic Corp. and Hitachi Ltdwith operations in Mexico have barred employees from travelling there.
Lufthansa, which has one daily flight to Mexico, has mobilized half of its 60 staff doctors, placing one on board each flight there. ”The doctor is there to answer passenger questions and to identify suspicions of flu during flight and to act to handle the situation before landing,” said Thomas Jachnow, a Lufthansa spokesman in Frankfurt.
Communication among the health authorities, the airlines and the airports has greatly improved from five years ago, he added. ”We learned the lessons from SARS and from bird flu.”
American Airlines flights have long had constant, high-frequency radio contact with the ground and can ”patch in” doctors to deal with any medical emergency. Richard Hedges, a spokesman in London, said the airline had issued health kits to cabin crews, consisting of masks, gloves and medical equipment.
British Airways, with four flights a week to Mexico, is distributing face masks to passengers so they can comply with a Mexican request for passengers to cover their faces as they go through Mexican airports.
IATA has reissued its health guidelines to airlines. They range from advising maintenance crews how to clean air filters safely to instructing cabin crews on how to isolate sick passengers.
Aircraft like the Boeing 747 have air filter systems that work vertically, in sections five rows wide, rather than down the length of the cabin. ”The quality of the air is at least as clean as in an operating theatre,” Concil said.
Singapore Airlines is allowing free itinerary changes worldwide.
Hedges, the spokesman for American Airlines, said that the airline had activated its so-called ”storm policy” for passengers flying to Mexico, allowing them to change routes or dates without charge.
As the second biggest US carrier flying to Mexico, it was ”reviewing demand levels on a constant basis,” Hedges added on Friday.
Continental, the US airline offering the most flights to Mexico, with 450 flights a week to 29 cities, said on Friday that it would continue flying to those destinations but would use smaller aircraft. The reductions will shrink the airline’s overall capacity by 2%.
© 2009/THE INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE
Video by Nidhi Bhardwaj