Airline Group Backs WHO’s Ebola Advice on Continuing Flights

Aug 19, 2014 8:49 am ET

(Updates with comment from South African government starting in eighth paragraph.)

Aug. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Air links should be maintained with Ebola-hit regions in West Africa that need connections to the outside world, the International Air Transport Association said after more carriers put flights on hold.

The industry needs only to screen passengers at airports in infected areas, apply rigorous procedures including isolation when handling suspected cases, and disinfect planes afterward, IATA said yesterday, citing World Health Organization advice that aviation constitutes a “low risk” for Ebola transmission.

“They have been very clear that travel and trade bans are unnecessary,” Raphael Kuuchi, IATA’s vice president for Africa, told the body’s Africa Aviation Day conference in Johannesburg. “Unless this advice changes we hope that countries working hard to eradicate Ebola continue to benefit from air connectivity.”

IATA commented after Kenya Airways Ltd., Africa’s third- largest carrier, said Aug. 16 it would cease flying today to Liberia and Sierra Leone -- which together with Guinea are the focus of the Ebola outbreak -- on the advice of the Kenyan health ministry. That’s after Korean Air Lines Co. said it would end trips to Nairobi on Aug. 20 because of the risk of infection spreading there via services from West Africa.

Commercial Impetus

While some carriers have elected to stop serving affected nations as a precaution, others may be reaching a “commercial decision” based on a decline in travel demand to and from affected countries as news of the outbreak makes headlines around the world, Kuuchi said.

“Airlines are within their rights to take whatever cautionary measures they deem necessary,” Kuuchi said in a separate statement.

South Africa’s government today responded to a newspaper report suggesting travel to the country has been hurt by the Ebola outbreak thousands of miles away, saying the story referred only to a handful of travelers canceling trips.

“There is no need to incite panic and speculation on the tourism industry,” Communications Minister Faith Muthambi said in an e-mailed statement. “South Africa is safe and is still an attractive destination for tourists.”

Task Force

The WHO said yesterday that in order to coordinate efforts to contain Ebola’s spread and provide timely updates to passengers it will establish a travel and transport task force also featuring the heads of IATA and other industry bodies.

The health organization’s response follows Cameroon’s Aug. 16 announcement that it would no longer allow flights from Ebola-hit states, with Public Health Minister Andre Mama Fouda saying, “Control has equally been tightened in all health districts, at the borders, airports and sea ports.”

Among operators closer to the Ebola outbreak, Gambia Bird, Togo-based Asky Airlines and Nigeria’s Arik Air had all earlier halted at least some flights into the area. Among top carriers, British Airways and Emirates have also scrapped services.

Ed Winter, chief executive officer of discount carrier FastJet Plc, said in an interview at the Johannesburg event that it’s “fairly logical” for governments to close borders to help stop the spread of Ebola, and that airlines are reaching a “sensible decision” in pulling out of stricken countries.

Yet in the four decades since Ebola was first identified in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the virus has never been inadvertently exported outside of Africa, while a case last month in which an infected Liberian took a flight from Monrovia to Lagos is the only known instance of a spread via air travel.

Brussels Air Link

The disease can only be caught through direct contact with body fluids, unlike respiratory infections such as tuberculosis, with most transmission coming via care of the sick or in funeral preparation and burial ceremonies, the WHO said.

Ghana’s Transport Minister Dzifa Aku Attivor said at the South African conference that of 45 suspected Ebola cases in the country, all were negative, and that it will follow WHO recommendations and continue flights to affected countries.

Brussels Airlines, the only carrier from outside Africa that serves all three Ebola-hit nations, is continuing with its usual timetable, spokeswoman Kim Daenen said yesterday. The carrier, which provides the bulk of West African flights for Deutsche Lufthansa AG, a 45 percent shareholder, has consulted with the WHO and the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp.

Air France said it’s maintaining flights to Sierra Leone and Guinea, while putting in place a specific Ebola plan there and in Lagos. Should a passenger exhibit symptoms on a flight they’re isolated, given a mask and must use a separate washroom.

Asia Visitors

“Ebola is a terrible disease but it is not easy to contract,” IATA’s Kuuchi said. “It can only be caught through contact with bodily fluids. It is almost impossible to be infected by someone on a flight.”

The South African government’s statement said the country has protocols in place to address any incidence of the virus, with increased surveillance at points of entry and at doctors’ surgeries. The country has 11 designated health-care facilities to deal with any reported Ebola cases, it said.

The Johannesburg-based Times newspaper reported earlier that Asian tourists in particular have canceled trips due to Ebola concern. Some 1,500 Thais due to visit through October have scrapped journeys, as well as groups from Malaysia, Hong Kong, China and Japan it said, citing Southern African Tourism.

FastJet CEO Winter said the best outcome is for the impact from Ebola to prove a short-term blip. The discount operator has its main hub in Tanzania and currently serves only east and southern African destinations, though its aim is to become a pan-continental carrier with operations in West Africa, too.

“It will have a big effect on traveling in that region for a period of time,” Winter said. “Hopefully it won’t be very long before it’s contained and disappears.”

The WHO-led task force will include the heads of the World Tourism Organization, Airports Council International, the United Nations-backed International Civil Aviation Organization and the World Travel & Tourism Council, as well as IATA, which has 240 airline members accounting for 84 percent of global traffic.

--With assistance from Andrea Rothman in Toulouse and Simeon Bennett in Geneva.