Airlines scramble to cancel China flights as coronavirus spreads
Airlines across the globe suspended more flights to China, as governments tightened up on travel to help stop the spread of the deadly Wuhan virus.
British Airways halted daily flights to Beijing and Shanghai from London’s Heathrow airport, after U.K. officials advised against non-essential travel. The U.K. flag carrier said it would reassess over the next few days.
Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. said separately it would cut capacity to China by 50% or more starting Thursday, in another blow to a carrier already under strain from protests in Hong Kong. In the U.S., United Airlines Inc. said it would reduce flights to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Governments have stepped up efforts to stop the spread of the disease as clusters of the infection began cropping up in countries outside of China, including Germany. That’s caused airlines, which had already pulled back from Wuhan, to place other other Chinese destinations off limits. Wuhan’s airport handles about 25 million passengers a year.
The number of confirmed cases in China soared to 5,974 -- overtaking the country’s official count of SARS patients -- while 132 people were reported to have died of the coronavirus. Germany said Tuesday it identified a cluster of local patients infected by a woman from Shanghai who had been visiting Europe, a worrying sign as it suggests the potential for additional spread outside China.
The increased alarm has already had an effect on travel within China during the Lunar New Year holiday season. Domestic travel on railways, road, water and airplanes in China fell 7.4% between Jan. 10 and Jan. 28, People’s Daily reported, citing the Ministry of Transport.
Several South Korean carriers have also halted flights to Chinese cities, including Asiana Airlines Inc., Jeju Air Co. and Jin Air Co., while Finnair Oyj and Air Macau Co. are among others taking similar steps.
Bloomberg Intelligence analysts James Teo and Chris Muckensturm said China Southern Airlines Co. could face the biggest blow among the country’s “big three” carriers as it controls 30% of Wuhan’s seat capacity, with routes to and from the capital of Hubei province accounting for 3.6% of its seats. That compares with 1.5% for Air China Ltd., which is also vulnerable, the analysts wrote in a report.
Passenger traffic at airlines such as Cathay and China Southern plunged 32% to 37% in the first half of 2003 because of the SARS pandemic, Teo and Muckensturm added. This time, “international airports’ swift implementation of preventative measures can help blunt the impact,” they said.
China Southern shares fell as much as 6.7% as trading resumed in Hong Kong following the Lunar New Year break, while Air China slid 5.5% and China Eastern Airlines Co. dropped as much as 7.7%.