Travel bans ineffective in battle against coronavirus battle, Asia airline group says

People wearing protective masks walk in Malpensa airport near Milan, Italy, on March 9, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

JAKARTA (BLOOMBERG) - Governments should roll back or refrain from using travel restrictions, as the coronavirus is mainly being spread through local transmission rather than imported cases, a trade group of Asian airlines said.

"Given that the Covid-19 outbreak is now progressing across the globe, it is time for a fundamental rethink on travel restrictions," the Association of Asia Pacific Airlines (AAPA) said in a statement, shortly before US President Donald Trump announced a 30-day suspension of travel from continental Europe to the United States.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has now declared the outbreak a pandemic, with cases worldwide rising beyond 126,000 and deaths exceeding 4,600. The virus has spread rapidly in Europe, where fatalities in Italy alone jumped 31 per cent in a day to 827 on Wednesday.

The airline industry has been plunged deep into crisis as travel demand dries up and countries tighten borders.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said airlines globally could lose as much as US$113 billion (S$158 billion) in passenger revenue this year. That bleak forecast came before Mr Trump imposed restrictions on the lucrative transatlantic routes. Nearly half a million flights have been cancelled this year for China alone, according to travel data company Cirium.

A Bloomberg index of Asia-Pacific airlines including the likes of Cathay Pacific Airways, Singapore Airlines and Air China has tumbled 22 per cent this year to its lowest since 2014 as the virus batters the market.

Qantas Airways, which is cutting almost a quarter of its international services for six months, is the worst performer on the gauge this year, with a 49 per cent slump.

"The proliferation of travel restrictions worldwide, and insufficient adherence to the IHR (International Health Regulations) are imposing enormous costs on society with little or no public health benefits," AAPA director general Andrew Herdman said in the statement.

More than 90 countries have imposed travel restrictions, but only 45 states have informed the WHO of the measures and provided public health rationale, AAPA said, citing a WHO report from Tuesday.

AAPA said the airline industry has been strictly adhering to WHO and IATA guidelines on hygiene, including for cleaning aircraft and lounges, and that it isn't aware of any infections attributed to inflight transmission.

Governments should "fundamentally reconsider the rationale for such travel restrictions and measures, taking into account the disruption caused to people's livelihoods and the negative repercussions to the wider economy", Mr Herdman said.

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