Wuhan virus: Airlines cut China flights as companies restrict travel on virus fears

Passengers in protective masks arriving at the Los Angeles International Airport in California, on Jan 25, 2020.
Passengers in protective masks arriving at the Los Angeles International Airport in California, on Jan 25, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

CHICAGO/SHANGHAI/SEOUL (REUTERS) - Airlines including United Airlines Holdings Inc said they were cancelling some flights to China as demand falls sharply and global companies tell their employees not to travel on deepening fears over the spread of a flu-like virus.

The coronavirus that originated in the city of Wuhan has killed more than 130 people in China and spread across the world, rattling financial markets.

The US warned that Americans should reconsider visiting China, while Britain advised against all but essential travel to mainland China. South Korea also advised its citizens to stay away.

Facebook became the first major US company to announce a travel suspension after the US government's warning, saying it had asked employees to halt non-essential travel to mainland China and to work from home if they had travelled there.

Chicago-based United Airlines said it was suspending 24 US flights to Beijing, Hong Kong and Shanghai between Feb 1 and Feb 8 due to a significant drop in demand.

Meanwhile, in response to a report by CNBC that the White House had told airline executives it was considering a suspension of US-China flights,  a senior Trump administration official said on Tuesday that the White House has not asked for a suspension of flights.

Europe's biggest bank, HSBC, banned all staff travel to Chinese-ruled Hong Kong for two weeks and to mainland China until further notice, according to an internal memo seen by Reuters.

The British-based lender, which has the largest presence among foreign banks in China, also asked staff who have recently visited the country to undergo a self-imposed 14-day quarantine.

The virus has an incubation period of up to 14 days.

US rival Goldman Sachs imposed similar measures, according to a memo seen by Reuters.

In South Korea, home appliances maker LG Electronics Inc put a complete ban on travel to China and has advised employees on business trips in the country to return home as quickly as possible, a company spokesman said.

South Korean chipmaker SK Hynix Inc said it was urging employees to avoid all non-essential travel to China, while banking group Standard Chartered restricted travel to both mainland China and Hong Kong.

In Germany, auto supplier Webasto, which has 11 sites in China, including in Wuhan, halted all corporate travel to and from China after an employee was infected.

Japan's Honda Motor Co said it recommended employees avoid travel to China, while Nissan Motor Co said it plans to evacuate its Japanese staff and their families in Wuhan via a government-chartered flight.

FALLING TRAVEL DEMAND

Aside from United, other airlines said they were adjusting schedules as companies reassessed the risk of travel to China.

South Korean budget carrier Air Seoul said it would halt all flights to China, while Taiwan's China Airlines rescheduled and cancelled some flights to China to Feb 10.

Taiwan's Eva Airways also said some flights to China may be cancelled.

 
 
 

Air Canada said it was cancelling some of its 33 weekly flights to China, and Germany's Lufthansa pointed to subdued bookings to and from the country.

Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways said it was reducing overnight layovers for crew at all points in mainland China as much as possible, resulting in some changes to its flight schedule.

International SOS, a medical and travel security services firm that advises companies on travel, said its guidance for now was that business travel to China outside Wuhan's province of Hubei could continue.

But this could be updated if there are major flight cancellations throughout China and more disruptions to ground transport, International SOS regional security director James Robertson said.