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Times of India
30 April 2009
Himanshi Dhawan & Saurabh Sinha
New Delhi, India

Swine Flu Affects Travel Plans, Airlines Suffer
Travellers have put off plans to favourite summer holiday destinations like UK and US following concerns that swine flu could accelerate into a potential pandemic. This could well prove to be the final nail in the coffin of the struggling aviation and hospitality sectors.

Airlines fear that as the list of areas affected by this potential pandemic spreads, air travel even in its current low level could hit a rock bottom. While most big carriers say it’s too early to estimate the impact in terms of cancellations as the news in India was out only on Monday, they fear its fallout could be much worse than what the SARS epidemic had led to in 2002–03.

Holidays can Wait
The SARS epidemic was mainly confined to the South–East Asian region. Airlines of the region, especially those like Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines, were worst hit and had curtailed flights. The swine flu, on the other hand, is expanding its reach very fast and has already covered North and South America, Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Asia. Its impact on travel will be known in coming days, said a senior airline official.

The biggest carriers here like Air India, Jet, British Airways and Lufthansa all said that it’s too early to comment right now when asked about the impact on bookings or cancellations due to swine flu. But there is certainly going to be an impact with advisories flowing in thick and fast against travel to certain countries. “Anyway only essential travel was taking place as both personal and corporate travel has been reduced to bare minimum. If now there are mass requests for refunds, we are doomed,” said one airline official. Fearing the worst, the Geneva–based International Air Transport Association (IATA) has swung into action. It sent a two–page note on swine flu to airlines where an attempt has been made to convert the scare into caution for air travellers.

The note says, “Normal influenza can be transmitted in many situations – at home between family members, in shopping malls, on the street or in aircraft. At this time, Who has not identified any specific risks from air travel. The Who and experts are still gathering information about the particular type of swine influenza in question. Passengers should be reassured that modern aircraft have very advanced air filtration systems which ensure a high level of air quality despite the confined environment. And, as always, it is important that any passenger who is unwell consult with his or her doctor prior to undertaking any travel.”

In fact, fearing that the scare against travel may lead to cabin crew problems, it tries to reassure them also. “At this time, Who has not identified any special risks arising from air travel – for passengers or for crew. Should passengers become unwell while on board, IATA has worked with the Who on guidance for crew to allow for safe handling and care,” the note says.

Though there are no cancellations yet, hospitality industry representatives are monitoring the situation as travellers veer towards postponing plans.

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