Airlines Under Pressure to Halt Flights to China; Update on Cancellations

By and Laurence Frost | January 31, 2020

Pilots and flight attendants are demanding airlines stop flights to China as health officials declare a global emergency over the rapidly spreading coronavirus, with American Airlines’ pilots filing a lawsuit seeking an immediate halt.

China has reported nearly 10,000 cases and 213 deaths, but the virus has spread to 18 countries often by plane passengers.

The Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents American Airlines pilots, cited “serious, and in many ways still unknown, health threats posed by the coronavirus” in a lawsuit filed in Texas, where the airline is based.

American said it was taking precautions against the virus but had no immediate comment on the lawsuit. On Wednesday it announced flight cancellations from Los Angeles to Beijing and Shanghai starting next month, but is continuing flights from Dallas.

APA President Eric Ferguson urged pilots assigned to U.S.-China flights to decline the assignment. In a statement, the American Airlines’ flight attendants union said they supported the pilots’ lawsuit and called on the company and the U.S. government to “err on the side of caution and halt all flights to and from China.”

Pilots at United Airlines, the largest U.S. airline to China, concerned for their safety will be allowed to drop their trip without pay, according to a Wednesday memo from their union to members.

United announced on Thursday another 332 U.S.-China flight cancellations between February and March 28, though it will continue operating roundtrip flights from San Francisco to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

The American Airlines pilot lawsuit came as an increasing number of airlines stopped their flights to mainland China, including Air France KLM SA, British Airways, Germany’s Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic.

Factbox on Flight Cancellations

REUTERS– Airlines are suspending flights to China in the wake of the new coronavirus outbreak, which as of Friday had killed more than 200 people and infected nearly 10,000 people.

Here is the latest on their plans (in alphabetical order):

AIR CANADA

Air Canada said on Jan. 28 it was canceling select flights to China.

AIR FRANCE

Air France said on Jan. 30 it suspended all scheduled flights to and from mainland China until Feb. 9.

AIR INDIA

Air India said it was canceling its Mumbai-Delhi-Shanghai flight from Jan. 31 to Feb. 14.

AIR NEW ZEALAND

Air New Zealand said on Jan. 31 it was temporarily reducing flights between Auckland and Shanghai to four return services a week from Feb. 18 to March 31 rather than the usual daily flights.

AIR SEOUL

South Korean budget carrier Air Seoul said on Jan. 28 it had suspended all flights to China.

AIR TANZANIA

Tanzania’s state-owned carrier said it would postpone its maiden flights to China. It had planned to begin charter flights to China in February.

AMERICAN AIRLINES

The largest U.S. carrier said it would suspend flights from Los Angeles to Beijing and Shanghai from Feb. 9 to March 27.

BRITISH AIRWAYS

BA said on Jan. 30 it had canceled all flights to mainland China for a month.

CATHAY PACIFIC AIRWAYS

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific said it would progressively reduce capacity to and from mainland China by 50% or more from Jan. 30 to the end of March.

DELTA AIR LINES

The U.S. airline said on Jan. 29 it was reducing flights to China to 21 per week from 42, starting Feb. 6 through April 30.

EGYPTAIR

Egypt’s flag carrier said on Jan. 30 it would suspend all flights to and from China starting Feb. 1.

EL AL ISRAEL AIRLINES

El Al Israel Airlines said on Jan. 30 it was suspending flights to Beijing until March 25. Israel’s Health Ministry said it will not allow flights from China to land at its airports.

ETHIOPIAN AIRLINES

The African carrier on Jan. 30 denied reports it had suspended all flights to China. The airline’s statement contradicted its passenger call center, which told Reuters earlier in the day that flights to China had been suspended.

FINNAIR

Finland’s Finnair said on Jan. 31 it was canceling all flights to mainland China between Feb. 6 and Feb. 29 and to Guangzhou between Feb. 5 and March 29.

KENYA AIRWAYS

Kenya Airways said on Jan. 31 it has suspended all flights to China until further notice.

LION AIR

Indonesia’s Lion Air Group said on Jan. 29 it would suspend all flights to China from February. The airline has suspended six flights from several Indonesian cities to China so far and will suspend the rest next month.

LUFTHANSA

Germany’s Lufthansa said on Jan. 29 it was suspending Lufthansa, Swiss and Austrian Airlines flights to and from China until Feb. 9. The airline continues to fly to Hong Kong, but it will stop taking bookings for flights to mainland China until the end of February.

ROYAL AIR MAROC

Moroccan airline Royal Air Maroc (RAM) has temporarily suspended its direct flights to China, the company said on Jan. 30. RAM had on Jan. 16 launched a direct air route with three flights weekly between its Casablanca hub and Beijing.

RWANDAIR

Rwanda carrier RwandAir has halted flights to and from China until further notice, the airline said in a statement on Friday. The decision will be reviewed later in February, it said.

SAS

Nordic airline SAS said on Jan. 30 it has decided to suspend all flights to and from Shanghai and Beijing from Jan. 31 until Feb. 9.

SAS offers 12 regular weekly connections from and to Shanghai and Beijing.

SHANGHAI AIRLINES

Shanghai Airlines said on Jan. 31 it would suspend its Chengdu-Budapest flight between Feb. 4 and March 28 and its Xi’an-Budapest flight between Feb. 6 and March 26 according to a statement on the website of the Budapest Airport operator.

The airline’s Shanghai-Budapest flight is unaffected.

SINGAPORE AIRLINES

Singapore Airlines Ltd said on Jan. 31 it would reduce capacity on some of its routes to mainland China in February.

The cuts include flights to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Xiamen and Chongqing, some of which are flown by regional arm SilkAir. Its budget carrier Scoot is also cutting back on flights to China.

TURKISH AIRLINES

Turkey’s flag carrier said on Jan. 30 it would decrease frequency on scheduled flights to Beijing, Guangzhou, Shanghai and Xian between Feb. 5 and Feb. 29.

UNITED AIRLINES

Chicago-based United said it would implement a second phase of flight cancellations between its hub cities in the United States and Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai, resulting in 332 additional round trips being called off through March 28.

The cancellations will reduce the carrier’s daily departures for mainland China and Hong Kong to four daily departures from 12.

United had previously suspended 24 U.S. flights to Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai between Feb. 1 and Feb. 8 because of a significant drop in demand.

UNITED PARCEL SERVICE INC

UPS has canceled 22 China flights, as a result of the Wuhan quarantines and normal manufacturing closures due to the Lunar New Year holiday, UPS Chief Executive David Abney said on Jan. 30. He did not specify how many flights cancellations were due to the virus.

VIETJET

Vietnam’s Vietjet will suspend all flights to and from China from Feb. 1, the company said on Jan. 31.

VIRGIN ATLANTIC

Virgin Atlantic said on Jan. 30 it would suspend its daily operations to Shanghai for two weeks from Feb. 2. It cited declining demand for flights and the safety of its customers and staff.

(Compiled by Jagoda Darlak and Tommy Lund in Gdansk; editing by Jason Neely) Copyright 2020 Reuters. Click for restrictions.

Other major carriers have kept flying to China, but protective masks and shorter layovers designed to reduce exposure have done little to reassure crews.

A U.S. flight attendant who recently landed from one major Chinese city said a big concern is catching the virus and spreading it to families, or getting quarantined while on a layover.

“I didn’t understand the gravity of the situation until I went there,” she said on condition of anonymity, describing general paranoia on the return flight, with every passenger wearing a mask. “Now I feel like I’m on a 14-day countdown.”

Thai Airways is hosing its cabins with disinfectant spray between China flights and allowing crew to wear masks and gloves.

Delta Air Lines is operating fewer flights and offering food deliveries so crew can stay in their hotels. The carrier is also allowing pilots to drop China trips without pay, a memo from its union to members said.

Korean Air Lines Co Ltd and Singapore Airlines are sending additional crew to fly each plane straight back, avoiding overnight stays.

The South Korean carrier also said it was loading hazmat suits for flight attendants who might need to take care of suspected coronavirus cases in the air.

Airlines in Asia are seeing a big drop in bookings along with forced cancellations because of the coronavirus outbreak, the head of aircraft lessor Avolon Holdings Ltd said, adding the impact could last for some months.

The outbreak poses the biggest epidemic threat to the airline industry since the 2003 SARS crisis, which led to a 45% plunge in passenger demand in Asia at its peak in April of that year, analysts said.

Fitch Ratings said airlines with more moderate exposure to China and the Asia-Pacific region were likely to be able to re-deploy capacity to alternative routes to mitigate the effect on traffic, but that could increase competition on those routes and reduce airfares.

Air France, which maintained China flights throughout the SARS epidemic, suspended its Beijing and Shanghai flights on Thursday after cabin crews demanded an immediate halt.

“When the staff see that other airlines have stopped flying there, their reaction is ‘Why are we still going?’,” said Flore Arrighi, president of UNAC, one of the airline’s four main flight attendants’ unions.

(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski, Laurence Frost and David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Allison Lampert in Montreal, Aradhana Aravindan, John Geddie and Anshuman Daga in Singapore, Chayut Setboonsarng and Panu Wongcha-um in Bangkok, Caroline Pailliez in Paris, Josephine Mason in London, Jamie Freed in Sydney and Joyce Lee in Seoul; Writing by Jamie Freed and Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Lisa Shumaker)

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