SARS Outbreak 'Worst Ever' Situation Faced by Asian Airlines

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - The SARS outbreak and reaction to it poses the gravest threat ever to international airlines operating in Asia-Pacific, a regional industry grouping has warned.

Thousands of tickets have been canceled, hundreds of flights have been cut and many planes are flying half-empty.

Unlike difficulties faced by airlines as a result of wars or economic downturns, the "severe acute respiratory syndrome" crisis is affecting very specific countries and cities, and the airlines servicing them are suffering disproportionately, according to Richard Stirland, director-general of the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA).

"People have stopped traveling either as an individual reaction to the possibility of contracting the disease, or as a result of warnings put out by health authorities," he said.

More than 140 people have died in six countries as a result of the atypical pneumonia virus. Airline travel has facilitated the spread and hardest-hit have been China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Canada.

The association, whose 17 members include some of the world's top airlines such as Singapore, Cathay Pacific and Qantas, said the carriers were taking "every possible measure" to prevent the further spread of SARS, including steps recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

But "arbitrary measures" taken by some countries were not helping the situation, and could help prolong the economic crisis while doing little to prevent the spread of SARS.

Stirland cited entry bans for people from specified countries and lengthy quarantining of aircraft on the strength of "flimsy evidence and unsubstantiated rumor."

He did not single out the countries responsible for such measures.

Malaysia has restricted entry to people from the worst-affected areas. Other countries, like Thailand, are enforcing quarantines on anyone arriving from those areas, whether or not they show signs of SARS.

Still others, including Japan and the United States, have advised citizens against making unnecessary trips to the affected areas, and similar recommendations have come from the WHO.

There have also been a number of reports of planes from Asia being held up at airports because crews suspected passengers might be showing SARS symptoms - high fever, coughing and respiratory difficulties.

After one plane was held at a San Diego airport April 1 for several hours before doctors cleared five people crew thought may have SARS, local health authorities suggested that taking such action in cases where people on flights from Asia were coughing, simply wasn't feasible.

Stirland warned that the steps AAPA regards as excessive could prompt other governments to retaliate.

One possible backlash may already be seen in Malaysia.

Kuala Lumpur recently announced a temporary freeze on visas for tourists from China, Taiwan, Vietnam and Canada, but said government officials, business travelers and students would be exempted on production of a medical declaration that they are free from SARS.

In apparent retaliation, China suspended all organized tour groups to Malaysia, and reports from Kuala Lumpur Tuesday said numbers of Chinese visitors had dropped by 80 percent - a severe blow to tourism in a country that usually welcomes 100,000 Chinese-speaking visitors a month.

Of the AAPA airlines, the Singapore and Hong Kong carriers have been hardest hit by the consequences of the outbreak, although many others have also reported substantial numbers of cancellations and seen their share prices fall.

Singapore Airlines, Asia's most profitable airline, has cut total weekly flights by around 20 percent since the SARS outbreak took hold, while Cathay Pacific has cancelled more than 40 percent of its flights.

Measures the AAPA airlines are taking include pre-flight screening of passengers and denial of boarding in suspected cases; dissemination of information on flights and at airports; increased sterilization and disinfection onboard; and provision of surgical masks to passengers and crew on certain routes.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow