Mon, Mar 31, 2003 - Page 10 News List

Regional airlines reduce their services

CONTAGION With a killer disease on the prowl, most carriers in the Asia-Pacific are feeling the effects of a slowdown in travel, leading them to stop some flights

BLOOMBERG , WITH STAFF WRITER, HONG KONG

Passengers return a health form to counter personnel at the China Airlines desk in Chiang Kai-shek International Airport yesterday. Health officials have begun screening all airline passengers in an attempt to contain the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome. EVA Airways reported a significant decline in the number of passengers on its Taiwan-Hong Kong route.

PHOTO: REUTERS

Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd (國泰航空), Hong Kong's largest carrier, joined Singapore Airlines Inc and other Asian rivals in cutting services as a pneumonia outbreak that's killed more than 50 people worldwide slashes air travel.

Cathay will reduce "some flights," said Tony Tyler, the airline's director of corporate development. Details of the cuts will be announced today. Hong Kong's Ming Pao daily reported yesterday that Cathay would cut as many as 15 flights.

China Airlines Co (中華航空), Taiwan's largest carrier which operates 16 passenger flights every day to Hong Kong, cancelled three Taiwan-Hong Kong flights on Saturday morning, local Chinese media reported.

"This is a one-time adjustment, not a regular plan to cut flights," Joseph Wu (武志厚), a China Airline public relations executive said.

China Airlines said it began providing its cabin crew with protective face masks and made masks available to passengers.

The fears about SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) had already undermined carriers' bottom line.

"We have seen a significant drop on our [Taiwan-Hong Kong route] flight occupancy rate," said Nieh Kuo-wei (聶國維), a spokesman from EVA Airways Corp (長榮航空), Taiwan's second-largest carrier.

Nieh, who declined to elaborate flight booking and cancellation rates, said the company is not considering to cut its Taiwan-Hong Kong flights, "because we only serve six flights every day on that route," he said.

Dragon Airlines Ltd (港龍航空), Hong Kong's second-largest carrier, said Thursday the disease had prompted "significant cancellations" from tour groups. Ming Pao daily reported yesterday that the airline plans to cut some flights to China and Taiwan.

The airline cut five flights to Kaohsiung, Taiwan, one to Hangzhou, China and one to Chongqing, China, the paper said. If conditions remain poor, the airline won't restart the flights, it added.

The US State Department warned yesterday against nonessential travel to Hong Kong, China, Singapore and Hanoi, Vietnam, which have the highest numbers of cases of the new respiratory disease. Concern that the illness and war in Iraq will cut ticket sales caused Cathay's shares to fall 12 percent last week to a six-month low.

"Cathay and the others are going to have a dent in their profits," said David Roche, chief executive of London-based researcher Independent Strategy Ltd "It's going to get a lot worse, and people are not going to fly to Hong Kong."

Singapore Airlines and Australia's Qantas Airways Ltd already said they'll eliminate some flights as demand falls. The disease, believed to have been spread to 13 countries by air travel, has infected more than 1,550 people and killed 54 worldwide, according to the World Health Organization.

Philippine Airlines Inc President Avelino Zapanta said a drop in passengers is prompting the country's biggest carrier to use smaller 268-seat planes on some flights to Hong Kong.

"We are downgrading our aircraft because of cancellations," Zapanta said. "We usually use a 439-seater plane to Hong Kong."

Singapore Airlines said yesterday it began screening all passengers for the illness on flights from Singapore, which has 86 cases, and other areas with high infection rates. The carrier said earlier it plans to cut eight weekly flights to Hong Kong on April 9 because of cancellations.

Governments across Asia are also taking measures to curb SARS. Hong Kong and Singapore have closed schools and quarantined hundreds of people that have been exposed to the illness.

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