The novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) outbreak in China could cause a “sizeable disruption” to passenger traffic, especially for operators in the Asia-Pacific region, though analysis of past pandemic episodes—such as SARS, the avian flu, and MERS—indicates that “any effect on air transport would be temporary,” the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said.
At the height of the SARS outbreak, in May 2003, revenue passenger kilometers (RPKs) of Asia-Pacific airlines dropped a staggering 35 percent from their pre-crisis levels but monthly international passenger traffic returned to its pre-crisis level within nine months, according to IATA data. On an annual basis, airlines in the region lost 8 percent of passenger traffic and $6 billion in revenues. The MERS Flu in 2015, which was concentrated more in a single country, initially resulted in a sharp slowdown—a 12 percent drop in monthly RPKs to, from, and within South Korea in the first month of the outbreak. However, air travel volumes began to recover after two months and had returned to pre-outbreak levels within six months. The 2005 and 2013 episodes of avian flu had a much milder and short-lived effect and air travel rebounded quickly as the fears of a global spread of the virus eased, IATA observed.
“In the past, the airline industry has proven resilient to shocks, including pandemics,” the airline trade group concluded, though it acknowledged the adverse timing of the 2019-nCoV outbreak as it coincided with the Lunar New Year celebrations and China’s busiest travel season. Moreover, owing to the very strong growth of the Chinese air transport market over recent years, an additional 450 million passengers fly to, from, and within China per year compared with a decade ago.
“The recent health scare reminds us of SARS,” Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) director-general Andrew Herdman told AIN. “It can have an impact on demand even without travel restrictions imposed by governments,” he said, though he cautioned against drawing early conclusions on the size of the 2019-nCoV outbreak’s effect. “We learned a lot from SARS,” he noted. “A lot of procedures to handle a pandemic are now well established through the World Health Organization, IATA, and other institutions.”
The WHO last week convened its emergency committee but has not yet declared the outbreak a public health emergency of international concern.
Herdman also pointed to the response of China, where both the 2019-nCoV and SARS originated. In contrast to the SARS outbreak, when Chinese officials hesitated in releasing information, “they now very quickly did take draconian actions and shared information with health authorities across the world,” he said.
IATA over the weekend said it is “closely monitoring” developments related to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, and it remains actively engaged with the WHO, ICAO, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Separately, EASA on Monday issued a safety information bulletin (SIB) recommending airlines provide information to crew members on how to manage a case of acute respiratory infection on board an aircraft. It further recommends that airlines and airport operators encourage crew members and airport staff to identify any passengers showing signs of acute respiratory infections who were recently in China or in contact with people coming from China. Airlines performing passenger flights to/from affected countries should equip flights with Universal Protection Kits for crew members assisting with potentially infectious cases. The SIB calls upon airlines and aerodrome operators to collaborate as much as possible with the public health authorities to provide support in tracing passengers who traveled on flights confirmed to have carried someone with a case of a 2019-nCoV infection.
Locations with confirmed 2019-nCoV cases now include mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Australia, Canada, France, Japan, Malaysia, Nepal, Singapore, Thailand, South Korea, the U.S., and Vietnam, according to the CDC. The agency introduced public health screenings on direct and connecting flights from Wuhan, China, to five U.S. airports—Atlanta, Chicago O’Hare, Los Angeles (LAX), New York JFK, and San Francisco.