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How the coronavirus outbreak is affecting travel

Three major US airlines are suspending all flights to and from mainland China.

Passengers arrive at Heathrow Airport in London after the last British Airways flight from China touched down in the UK.
Passengers at Heathrow Airport in London. British Airways halted all flights to and from China on January 29, 2020.
Steve Parsons/PA Images/Getty Images

Update: March 5, 2020: This story contains information that is no longer timely. For news on how the Covid-19 outbreak is affecting US airlines, read the latest here.

American, Delta, and United Airlines will temporarily suspend all flights to mainland China in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak. The decision comes days after most major carriers announced reduced service to China; American will stop flights immediately through March 27, while Delta and United will suspend service starting on February 6. Earlier this week, all three major carriers have waived change and cancellation fees for China-bound travelers through the end of February.

American’s suspension will last through March 27, United expects to resume service by March 28, and Delta by April 30, according to the New York Times.

As of January 30, at least 9,776 have contracted cases of 2019-nCoV, a respiratory illness that originated in Wuhan, China. There are currently five cases of coronavirus in the US from patients who’d recently traveled to Wuhan.

On Tuesday, the White House reportedly warned airlines that it might ban all China-US flights if the disease becomes a bigger public health threat in the United States, according to the Washington Post. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also expanded its travel warning Tuesday, recommending that Americans “avoid all nonessential travel” to China.

The majority of coronavirus cases and deaths are occurring in mainland China, but infections have been confirmed in at least a dozen other countries, including the US, Canada, France, Germany, and South Korea. Vox’s Julia Belluz writes, “Less than four weeks into the outbreak, fear about how bad this could get is spreading faster than the virus. ... People are buying face masks. Markets are on edge. Cities and countries are responding with mass quarantines and travel bans.”

Given the global concern surrounding the outbreak, the demand for travel to mainland China has declined considerably, according to US airlines. Several China-based online travel agencies and American hotel chains, like Marriott and Hilton, are also offering free cancellations or changes to bookings.

A passenger wears a mask, wheeling his luggage through Heathrow International Airport in London.
All three major American carriers — United, Delta, and American — are waiving change and cancellation fees for China-bound travelers through the end of February.
Steve Parsons/PA Images/Getty Images

In completely halting service, Delta and American are following in the footsteps of many of their international counterparts: British Airways has stopped all of its flights to China, as did Air India, Indonesia’s Lion Air, and South Korea’s Seoul Air.

Airlines, which operate on slim profit margins, are strategically cutting back on future flight routes that aren’t filling up.

“It’s really just as simple that airlines tend not to fly to places people (including their cockpit and cabin crews, by the way) are being told not to travel to, even when that is temporary,” Robert Mann, an aviation industry consultant, wrote to Vox in an email.

United Airlines was the first major US carrier to cancel dozens of China-bound flights between February 1 and 8. (Of all US airlines, United offers the most flights to China.) The airline is entirely halting service on routes from major US airports to Beijing, Shanghai, and Chengdu, CNBC reported. United previously scaled back service to three or four flights a day, instead of its typical 12 daily flights.

It’s possible that airplanes typically flown on these routes will be deployed elsewhere, which helps an airline mitigate losses from reduced operations, Mann added.

“China represents about 3.8 percent of all the international seats for American, Delta, and United,” said Austin Horowitz, senior aviation management consultant at the global consulting firm ICF. “It’s a small portion of their international ticket sales, but still a significant number.”

The biggest impact of halted flights would primarily fall on Asia-based carriers, he said. Like Delta and American, United is providing travel waivers for passengers flying into China and Hong Kong to allow people to change flights between the same cities without paying a fee. According to United’s website, the waiver covers travelers flying into Beijing, Chengdu, and Shanghai airports with original travel dates from January 24 to February 29, and Wuhan airport from January 22 to March 29. Passengers can also request a refund for flights they did not take.

On Friday, American and Delta took it one step further, electing to suspend all flights between the United States and China (American will continue service to Hong Kong). Delta will continue servicing flights since it wants “to ensure customers looking to exit China have options to do so,” CNN reported. (Both carriers have waived cancellation fees for travelers.)

“Based on the U.S. Department of State’s recent increase of the China Travel Advisory to a Level 4 (Do Not Travel), American is suspending its operations to and from the Chinese mainland beginning today through March 27,” American said in a statement to CNN. The decision comes on the heels of a lawsuit filed by the American Airlines’ pilot union on Thursday, which pressured the company to immediately stop its China service.

American Airlines passengers can cancel and receive a refund for a trip if they’re scheduled to travel to or from Wuhan from January 23 to March 31, according to the airline’s website. Travelers flying to Beijing, Shanghai, or Hong Kong can receive a change fee waiver if they originally had a trip between January 24 and February 29.

The financial effects of a major flight suspension “would not be much greater than people electing not to travel,” according to Horowitz. “The airlines are already losing a significant number of passengers because people are not traveling voluntarily,” he said.

The travel industry is usually hit the hardest by pandemic threats. Fueled by mass hysteria, politicians in cities and countries around the world clamor to secure their borders against the threat of a spreadable disease. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, which affected over 8,000 people, stocks of US airlines dropped more than 30 percent (as did the economy overall), Barron’s reported.

In late January, US officials implemented stricter airport screenings and the State Department on Thursday issued a Level 4 “do not travel” advisory to China, actions that demonstrate how seriously they are monitoring the coronavirus threat. Airports in Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco are screening travelers from Wuhan for symptoms of the virus. (Despite these measures, previous pandemic travel bans and quarantines have failed to prevent the spread of the diseases they’re meant to stop.)

Certainly, there are risks if you choose to travel to China, especially near the disease’s epicenter in Wuhan. Travelers are rightfully concerned for their health, but Horowitz maintains that US airlines shouldn’t be calling the shots as to who gets to travel and who doesn’t.

“Perhaps there’s a family member who wants to return to China or a doctor who wishes to volunteer,” he said on Tuesday, when the travel advisory risk was lower. “It isn’t the airline’s place to make that decision; it’s the US government.”

Now that the State Department has escalated its travel advisory, it’s only a matter of time before the White House enacts a travel ban, or more airlines reconsider whether they will continue to offer flights.

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