More airlines offer rebookings or refunds for tickets to areas hit by Zika virus

NEW YORK - Lufthansa, British Airways and JetBlue became the latest international carriers to offer rebookings or refunds for tickets to areas affected by the Zika virus, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) expressed concern about the swift spread of the mosquito-borne disease.

The virus, which has been linked to birth defects in thousands of babies in Brazil, has provoked concern among travellers holding tickets to affected destinations. The virus is present in more than 20 countries and territories in the Americas, including Mexico, Puerto Rico and Caribbean countries that are popular with US winter vacationers.

Lufthansa and British Airways both said on Thursday that they would offer pregnant women the opportunity to change their reservations to another destination or delay travel, although they stopped short of offering complete refunds as several US airlines have.

JetBlue, which is offering refunds, so far has seen "no measurable impact" on advance bookings or customer refunds, said Mr Marty St. George, JetBlue's executive vice-president for commercial and planning.

Cruise lines and resorts have so far reported little impact from increasing fears about the disease. Still, some cancellations, especially among the main risk group - pregnant women - look inevitable especially as the illness becomes more widely publicized.

"We believe there could be a slowdown in bookings during this time of heightened media coverage and general fear until more information is known," airline analyst Helane Becker of Cowen and Co said in a research note on Thursday.

However, speaking in terms of the impact of the disease on airlines' performance, she added: "We do not view this virus on the same level as the Ebola outbreak in late 2014 or Sars (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in 2003 ... We would view a decline in shares as a result of the Zika virus as a buying opportunity."

New York-traded airline shares were generally lower, led by a 9.2 per cent drop in Panama-based Copa and JetBlue, down 7.4 per cent.

Several carriers - from United Airlines to Latam - have already offered to refund people planning to travel to regions affected by the virus.

American Airlines, the US carrier with the largest network of flights to Latin America and the Caribbean, said on Thursday that ticket holders to any Zika-hit area could request a refund, broadening its previous list of eligible destinations.

Delta Air Lines announced a similar refund policy on Wednesday.

Brazil's Gol said it would let pregnant women reschedule flights or receive credit, but would not offer refunds.

WHO warned on Thursday that Zika is spreading "explosively" and could affect as many as four million people in the Americas.

The virus causes rash, mild fever and red eyes. Some 80 per cent of those infected typically do not have symptoms, making it difficult for pregnant women to determine if they have the virus. No vaccine or treatment is available.