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Airlines suspend, scale back direct flights to China amid virus fears

By Sarah Young and Allison Lampert
FILE PHOTO: Passengers wearing masks are seen at the Pudong International Airport in Shanghai

By Sarah Young and Allison Lampert

LONDON/MONTREAL (Reuters) - Global airlines on Wednesday suspended or scaled back more direct flights to China's major cities amid an increase in travel warnings and decline in demand from passengers due to a growing outbreak of coronavirus. Fears over the spread of the flu-like virus, which originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, are increasing as the death toll topped 160.

The virus appears to represent the biggest epidemic threat to the airline industry since the SARS outbreak, which at its peak in April 2003 led to a 45% plunge in passenger demand in Asia, analysts said.

The White House is considering further restrictions on U.S. airlines flying to and from China in addition to voluntary restrictions the companies have put into place, President Donald Trump's economic adviser Larry Kudlow said on Wednesday.

"The matter is under discussion every day," he said.

British Airways <ICAG.L> said it suspended all direct flights to and from mainland China.

BA.com, the airline's website, shows no direct flights to mainland China available to book in January or February. But the airline said in an email the cancellations were in effect until Jan. 31 while it assesses the situation.

Air Canada <AC.TO>, which planned earlier this week to cancel just a select number of its 33 weekly flights to China, said on Wednesday it would suspend all direct flights to Beijing and Shanghai.

The suspension, from Jan. 30 to Feb. 29, came after the government of Canada updated its travel advisory urging its citizens to avoid non-essential travel to China.

American Airlines Group Inc <AAL.O> said on Wednesday it would suspend flights from Los Angeles to Beijing and Shanghai but continue flying from Dallas, and Delta Air Lines <DAL.N> said it was halving its U.S.-China schedule to about 21 weekly flights.

U.S. officials said the White House had decided against suspending all flights to China for now, but it could revisit the decision if events warrant.

Among European carriers, Germany's Lufthansa <LHAG.DE> suspended its own, Swiss and Austrian Airlines flights to and from China until Feb. 9, while Air France <AIRF.PA> said it would reduce its flight schedule to Beijing and Shanghai this week.

Iberia, part of the IAG group along with BA, said it was temporarily suspending all flights to Shanghai.

Asia-Pacific accounts for about 19% of both Air France-KLM and Lufthansa's available seat kilometers and 8% of IAG's in 2019, Goodbody analysts said.

"The airline industry has proven resilient to shocks in the past," S&P Global Ratings said. "However, the impact on Asia-Pacific airlines and other operators will depend on how quickly the virus is contained and the extent to which it spreads beyond China."

Indonesia’s Lion Air said on Wednesday it would suspend all direct flights to China. India’s IndiGo is also suspending flights to Chengdu and Hong Kong.

Carriers including Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways said on Wednesday amenities such as hot towels, blankets and magazines would not be offered on flights to and from mainland China from Thursday until further notice.

Cathay Pacific and other airlines are allowing their flight attendants to wear face masks and gloves on flights to protect against fears of contagion.

Wesley Lesosky, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees unit that represents Air Canada flight attendants, said by email that members have the option of wearing masks and gloves on flights to China.

But flight attendants remained "concerned with the effects the virus could have if contracted, how to recognize an infected passenger and how to deal with the nervous passengers onboard," Lesosky said.


(Reporting by Sarah Young and Allison Lampert, additional reporting by Jessica Jones in Madrid, Tracy Rucinski in Chicago, Jamie Freed in Sydney, David Shepardson and Jeff Mason in Washington and Aradhana Aravindan in Singapore; editing by Kate Holton, Nick Macfie, Jonathan Oatis, Dan Grebler and Lincoln Feast.)