HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways will allow flight attendants to wear a surgical mask while operating mainland China flights due to concerns over the new coronoavirus, but the attendants' union wants the measure to apply to all flights.
The coronavirus struck as millions of Chinese prepared to travel for the Chinese New Year, heightening contagion risks and posing a fresh threat to demand for the airline, which has been battered by months of sometimes violent anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
The Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union said it had received a "tremendous" amount of e-mails and messages from members concerned over catching the virus given they are exposed to over 300 passengers from numerous places on a single flight.
"All of them are worried about the risk they are taking every time they go to work," the union said on its Facebook page on Tuesday (Jan 21).
"It is time for the company to properly address their concerns and allow cabin crew to wear masks on all flights."
So far, it said, the airline was not allowing cabin crew to wear masks except for Wuhan flights. The outbreak began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
Cathay Pacific said on Wednesday that it had told crew they could use their discretion and choose to wear a surgical mask while operating on mainland China flights.
On Tuesday evening, its website said with immediate effect, rebooking, rerouting and refund charges would be waived for all tickets arriving to or departing from Wuhan through Feb 15.
The authorities have confirmed more than 300 cases of the virus in China, mostly in Wuhan where the authorities on Tuesday said six people had died. The disease has spread to other parts of China, including five cases in capital Beijing.
Cases have also been confirmed in Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan, all involving people who had been to Wuhan.
AIRLINE'S VIRUS FRONT LINE
Cathay Pacific told the South China Morning Post, which first reported on the issue, that as required by the Hong Kong health authorities, it was distributing health declaration forms and will be making face masks and antiseptic wipes available at the boarding gate to passengers travelling from Wuhan to Hong Kong.
"Our frontline staff are reminded to maintain good personal and environmental hygiene, and to remain alert and vigilant while being on the lookout for passengers presenting with infectious disease symptoms," it told the newspaper.
Cathay Pacific has already been hit by plummeting demand as a result of anti-government protests in Hong Kong, leading it to cut capacity and defer the delivery of four planes.
Shares in Cathay Pacific have fallen by 10 per cent since the start of January as the virus spread.
Jefferies analysts said shares in Cathay Pacific and mainland Chinese carriers could remain under pressure for some time if the coronavirus situation paralleled the 2003 Sars outbreak and cases continued to increase. That coronavirus outbreak killed nearly 800 people.
"During Sars in 2003, share prices only bottomed two months after first being recognised by the WTO on 26 Feb 2003 despite China total passenger traffic declining until June 2003," the analysts said in a note to clients on Tuesday.