Airlines and Airports React to Virus Outbreak in China

 - January 21, 2020, 5:05 PM
Passengers wait to board at departure gates at Wuhan Tianhe International Airport. (Photo: Meraj Chhaya, Flickr Creative Commons)

The recent outbreak of a flu-like virus in China is creating a ripple effect across global markets, sending shares tumbling as airlines and airports heighten passenger screening measures ahead of the Chinese Lunar New Year.

Hong Kong-listed shares of state-owned airlines China Eastern and China Southern plummeted 6.7 percent and 6.51 percent, respectively, on Tuesday while Cathay Pacific dropped 4.07 percent. Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways (ANA) slipped to 2.97 percent and 2.16 percent, respectively, while Australian carrier Qantas fell 1.7 percent.

U.S. and European airline shares also saw declines on Tuesday as investors recalled the economic fallout from China's Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic in 2002/2003, which killed nearly 800 people globally and led to a recession in Hong Kong. Delta Air Lines slid 5.2 percent, United Airlines lost 5.1 percent, and American Airlines dropped 3.8 percent. Meanwhile, Air France-KLM and Lufthansa each saw shares slip around 2 percent.

Chinese authorities on Tuesday confirmed the new coronavirus outbreak had killed six people in China’s central city of Wuhan, bringing the total number infected to nearly 300. By mid-afternoon Tuesday, the U.S. reported its first case of the virus, after a Washington state resident traveling back from Wuhan came down with the pneumonia-like illness. Authorities have also confirmed cases in Taiwan, Thailand, Japan, and South Korea.

Considered one of the largest human migration events in the world, scores of Chinese travelers will take to the skies this Saturday for Lunar New Year, igniting concerns over a global pandemic. While public health officials have yet to advise on travel and trade restrictions, the World Health Organization (WHO) will convene on Wednesday to determine whether to declare a global health emergency. The international agency applied an emergency designation last year, following an Ebola outbreak in eastern Congo.

Fearing worldwide disruption, airlines and airports have increased screening of passengers traveling from high-risk areas. Scores of airports in Asia, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and Thailand, have enacted a string of measures ranging from thermal screening to imposing a health declaration form system. Countries sharing borders with China, including Vietnam, have also tightened security checks given the high volume of cross-border flows. Meanwhile, Cathay Pacific is allowing cabin crew to wear face masks on routes to mainland China but has yet to extend that permission to international flights.

Farther afield, Australia, Italy, Canada, and the U.S. have all introduced screening measures for passengers arriving from Wuhan. Australian health authorities confirmed on Tuesday that a Brisbane man had been tested for the virus but was later released.