Aviation industry struggles with SARS
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Aviation industry struggles with SARS

Thursday, 24 April 2003, 07:00 Hrs
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NEW DELHI: Aviation in Southeast Asia will suffer the symptoms of a killer pneumonia epidemic for at least five more months, if not a year, industry representatives fear.

The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), that has killed around 220 people and affected over 4,000 people around the world, mainly in China and Hong Kong, has not only afflicted air travel but is likely to show on the airlines' bottom lines for a year.

"Even if we optimistically say the disease is tackled within a month or two, it will take a lot more time to restore passengers' confidence," said K. Joshi, an air travel executive.

"SARS is the latest in the worst two-year spell for the aviation industry ever, beginning mid-2000 and going through 9/11, the Afghanistan war and the Iraq war," Joshi told IANS. "Barely do we see some sign of recovery when something else happens."

The aviation industry, which rides on economy, is already bearing the brunt of dismal economic conditions. Airlines worldwide have lost billions of dollars in the past two years and high fuel and labour costs have contributed to the losses. The downturn is here to stay for some more time.

The worldwide panic because of SARS and travel warnings issued by U.S., Canada, Britain and many European nations have caused a sharp fall in traffic to Asia. SARS has spread to more than 20 countries through air travel despite stringent checks at the immigration counters of various countries.

According to Civil Aviation Minister Syed Shahnawaz Hussain, SARS has led to an estimated loss of revenue amounting to 78 million for international flag carrier Air-India (A-I) and 9.2 million for domestic carrier Indian Airlines (IA).

Almost 30 percent of A-I's operations have been affected. The airline flies 14 weekly flights to Singapore, five to Bangkok, five to Hong Kong and about as many to Tokyo or Osaka in Japan.

A-I has suspended a total of 17 flights. All flights to Singapore and Kuala Lumpur from New Delhi have been cancelled.

Four flights to Singapore were dropped due to low passenger load on flights and refusal of pilots to fly to the disease-hit region. Flights to Hong Kong have been curtailed to two frequencies.

An airline spokesperson said flights to Singapore and Hong Kong were carrying only about 25 percent of the total capacity.

"There has been a loss in revenue compared with last year, which is only expected as people are just not travelling to the region," the spokesperson told IANS.

The airline had also stopped overnight halts for its crew in Singapore to reduce their chances of exposure to SARS.

The loss-making IA has not suspended any flights so far, despite its passengers dropping to as little as 20 on one flight to Singapore.

An airline spokesperson said: "There are 50 percent less passengers on an average, though it is the tourist season. We will wait and watch the situation."

Bookings from India to Southeast Asia have dropped by 60 percent for May-June 2003, from last year and business travel has been worst hit.

But Indian carriers have not been affected as badly as other Southeast Asian airlines such as Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines and Dragonair, which have curtailed flights.

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific, which also flies to New Delhi and Mumbai, has cut its flights by 42 percent due to the steep fall in passenger traffic and bookings. It said it was losing $3 million a day.

Said Cathay's deputy chairman and chief executive David Turnbull: "With lingering uncertainty in the Middle East and the profound impact of the atypical pneumonia (SARS) globally, we do not know how long the current weakness in travel demand will continue."

One of the most profitable Asian carriers, Singapore Airlines, was suffering a loss of about $1 billion a day, prompting it to cut a total of 199 flights a week and reduce its services to 35 per week.

China's flag carrier, Air China is also getting 20 percent less passenger traffic.
Source: IANS
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