BERLIN (Reuters) - Airlines and airports handling travel to countries worst hit by the Ebola epidemic are trying to prove that flying to West Africa is safe, following concerns that the first case diagnosed in the United States could curtail worldwide services.
Some airlines have already suspended or cut back flights since the summer, and only one European carrier now offers direct services to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. However, those still operating have taken measures to protect passengers and crew, along with airports in the region and beyond.
The Dallas Ebola case, involving a man who returned to the United States from Liberia last month, has led to worries about a spread of the virus outside West Africa, where at least 3,338 people have died in the worst outbreak on record. [ID:nL2N0RW0SQ]
Shares in airline and travel stocks fell on Thursday, with European travel and leisure shares down 1 percent, against a 0.6 percent fall for European stocks.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said on Thursday that the Ebola crisis has taken on a “new dimension” with the case in the United States, but it repeated that flying remained safe.
The virus is not transmitted through air, but by contact with bodily fluids and is contagious only once there are symptoms such as fever, vomiting and diarrhoea. These symptoms are so crippling that it is nearly impossible for anyone suffering them to board a plane, experts say.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has not placed any restrictions on travel and has encouraged airlines to keep flying to the worst-hit regions. British Airways and Emirates airlines [EMIRA.UL] have suspended some flights.
“Travellers should be reassured. WHO has clearly said that the risk of Ebola transmission on board an aircraft is very low,” IATA Director General Tony Tyler said on Thursday.
Working with the WHO and IATA, the United Nations airline body ICAO came up with guidelines for airlines on contagious diseases following the outbreak of SARS in 2003, which resulted in $7 billion of lost revenue to Asia-Pacific and U.S. airlines, according to IATA estimates.
At airports in Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Nigeria - which has suffered a relatively small number of cases - and also in African hubs such as Addis Ababa, passengers entering and leaving have to undergo temperature scans and fill in questionnaires indicating places they have visited.
Airports in the crisis-hit areas are well-stocked with antibacterial handwash and plastic gloves. Brussels Airlines, the sole European airline still flying directly to the three worst-hit countries, says its crew also have permission to refuse boarding to anyone who appears to be ill.
Moroccan state-owned Royal Air Maroc, which still flies to Conakry, Freetown and Monrovia, says crews are trained to detect Ebola symptoms.
“If the proper procedures are put in place, the risk is miniscule,” Peter Fowler, chief executive of security firm Westminster Group, told Reuters.
Westminster Group provides security services, including at Sierra Leone’s international airport, and has brought in scanners to screen passengers’ body temperature there.
The number of people coming in and out of the airport has also been restricted and it has isolation areas available should there be suspected cases.
However, the president of Emirates Airline [EMIRA.UL] said on Thursday that demand for flights to Africa from Asia had fallen due to concerns over the virus. [ID:nL6N0RX2QM]
A spokesman for Ethiopian Airlines [ETHA.UL], which serves 49 destinations in Africa, said customers were more cautious in bookings, but that its planes were still full and there had been no cancellations.
Royal Air Maroc said flights to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia had become unprofitable because they were usually empty on the way out and full only on the way back.
“It is going to have a big impact on West Africa, for places like Ghana for example where the tourism trade will be affected by association,” Westminster Group’s Fowler said. “Africa is coming up in the world, this is the last thing it needs. But they will get through it.”
Brussels Airlines said the outbreak meant it has had to change the way it operates and crews no longer stay overnight in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. It also carries Ebola kits on board that enable it to isolate a passenger should symptoms develop during a flight.
The airline, 45 percent owned by Lufthansa, used to combine flights to Conakry, Freetown and Monrovia with a stop in other African countries, but now has to fly directly from Brussels due to restrictions placed by neighbouring west African countries.
This means it now has more seats available to those places as it can no longer to sell tickets to two different destinations on one flight.
“We do have extra costs, yes, but there is a need to travel. Passengers that used to fly with other airlines now have to fly with us,” a Brussels Airlines spokesman said. He said the airline was also transporting aid workers and was prioritising medical cargo.
“Ebola is not new for us,” he said. “Logistically, it’s not easy, it is a challenge, but it’s our humanitarian duty to keep flying.”