US ban on European travel adds to woes of airlines hit by virus

LOS ANGELES • A clampdown on Europeans travelling to the United States will heap more pressure on airlines already reeling from the coronavirus pandemic.

Analysts said this raises the odds of government relief packages as billions of dollars of tourist spending vanish.

The 30-day curbs from today, which exclude Britain, Ireland and other countries outside the European Schengen passport-free travel area, are similar to those that went into effect on Feb 1, and targeted China. They come after the outbreak's rapid spread across the European continent and in the US.

Combined with a fresh US State Department advisory asking citizens to reconsider the need to travel globally, the move could create chaos at dozens of airports across Europe as passengers attempt a last-minute rush to fly to the US before the ban takes effect.

Flights from Europe can still operate to a limited number of US airports with enhanced screening under measures announced on Wednesday evening. But only US citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family members will be allowed in, severely denting the passenger base and hurting the US tourism industry.

As well as slashing arrivals, the move is set to decimate spending by European tourists in the US. In March last year, European visitors to the US accounted for 29 per cent of arrivals and US$3.4 billion (S$4.8 billion) of spending, the US Travel Association said.

"Temporarily shutting off travel from Europe is going to exacerbate the already-heavy impact of coronavirus on the travel industry and the 15.7 million Americans whose jobs depend on travel," US Travel Association president Roger Dow said in a statement.

President Donald Trump said the ban was needed because the US was entering a "critical time" in the fight against the virus, which has spread across the country and killed at least 37 people and infected 1,281.

US airlines had already slashed flight schedules to Italy, which is facing the largest European outbreak, and will take another hit from lower demand for flights from major destinations such as France and Germany.

Mr Nicholas Callio, president of airline trade group Airlines for America, said the ban would hit US airlines, their employees and travellers "extremely hard".

He said his group respected the need to take the unprecedented action, but Association of Flight Attendants-CWA president Sarah Nelson has called the ban "irresponsible". She said: "There is no explanation for how this will help fight the spread of the virus. It makes little sense when the virus is already in the United States."

Mr William Reinsch, a former senior Commerce Department official and fellow with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said the restrictions would be "enormously disruptive".

"I think the administration will be forced to provide some relief to the airlines," he said.

The new curbs will particularly batter foreign carriers such as Germany's Lufthansa and Air France KLM that dominate the market for flights between mainland Europe and the US and had already grounded dozens of planes, analysts said.

"The ban on flights on Europe will really zap foreign carriers," said aviation analyst Mike Boyd of Boyd Group International.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 13, 2020, with the headline 'US ban on European travel adds to woes of airlines hit by virus'. Print Edition | Subscribe