Wuhan virus: How global airlines are responding as the outbreak spreads

Passengers arriving at Changi Airport Terminal 3 from a Hangzhou flight go through a thermal scanner on Jan 22, 2020.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

SYDNEY - Airlines and passengers are on guard against a new flu-like virus that originated in Wuhan, China.

Here's an explainer on the airline industry's response to the outbreak so far and its potential financial exposure compared to Sars in 2003, which killed nearly 800 people:

WHAT IS THE EXPECTED FINANCIAL IMPACT ON AIRLINES?

The biggest concern is a sharp drop in travel demand if the virus becomes a pandemic.

During the height of the Sars outbreak in April 2003, passenger demand in Asia plunged 45 per cent, according to the International Air Transport Association (Iata).

Cathay cut nearly 40 per cent of its flights and reported a financial loss, as did Singapore Airlines, Japan Airlines and ANA Holdings.

The industry is now more reliant on Chinese travellers.

For example, in Australia, Chinese travellers account for more than 15 per cent of international arrivals, up from just 4 per cent in 2003, according to Moody's ratings service.

Those travellers, who arrive mostly via mainland carriers, often take domestic flights once they arrive in Australia, pointing to the potential for knock-on effects for the likes of local airline Qantas Airways if there is a fall in travel demand.

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Since 2003, the number of annual air passengers has more than doubled, with China growing to become the world's largest outbound travel market.

In 2003, 6.8 million passengers from China travelled on international flights, and that number has grown by close to 10 times to 63.7 million in 2018, according to data from the country's aviation authority.

Global airline industry revenues more than doubled to US$838 billion (S$1.1 trillion) in 2019 from just US$322 billion in 2003, according to Iata data.

"Whether only one secondary market, an entire country or the wider region is impacted is obviously unpredictable and outside of the industry's control," said Mr Brendan Sobie, an independent aviation analyst in Singapore.

WHICH AIRLINES ARE HEAVILY EXPOSED?

Many airlines, including Korean Air Lines, Singapore Airlines' budget carrier Scoot, Taiwan's China Airlines and Japan's ANA, announced they were cancelling flights in and out of Wuhan after authorities announced a lockdown.

South Korean budget carrier T'way Air earlier this week postponed the scheduled launch of a new route to the city.

Flight tracking website FlightRadar24 showed that as of 0600 GMT (2pm Singapore) on Thursday, 184 Wuhan flights, or 60 per cent of the departures listed for the day, had been cancelled.

Wuhan's Tianhe airport serves around 2 per cent of China's total air traffic and mainly serves domestic routes.

Broker Jefferies estimated 88.8 per cent of overall flights are domestic, with China Southern Airlines holding the largest market share at 30 per cent.

ARE PASSENGERS CANCELLING TRIPS TO CHINA?

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Hanatour Service, South Korea's largest travel agency, said that cancellations of trips to China increased about 20 per cent this week compared to same period last year.

The figure includes postponements and switches to other destinations, a company official said.

Mr Rajeev Kale, country head for Thomas Cook India's holidays division, said some customers were raising concerns about travelling to China. "Most of our customers are adopting a wait-and-watch approach to see further developments," he said.

Philippine Airlines, Garuda Indonesia and Japan Airlines said there was no slowdown in bookings to and from China yet, while low-cost Filipino carrier Cebu Pacific said some passengers had expressed concerns about whether it was safe to fly but had not cancelled bookings.