Ailing Airline Industry Braces For Flu Impact

(AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Vice President Joe Biden told viewers of NBC's "The Today Show" this morning that, due to the spread of the H1N1 virus, people should avoid unnecessary air travel and that sick travelers should avoid confined spaces like airplanes all together. It may be sound advice for travelers, but the vice president's words could hurt an already-ailing industry.

The World Health Organization raised the level of influenza pandemic alert from phase 4 to phase 5 on Wednesday, yet the organization is not advising any restriction of regular travel or closure of borders. Even so, the airline industry says passenger concerns over the flu could take its toll on business.

James May, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association, sent Mr. Biden a letter today expressing "extreme disappointment" with his comments.

"No responsible officials or healthcare professionals have suggested that people avoid air travel," the letter said. "We need to deal responsibly with the flu threat but, at the same time, while following professional healthcare advice, keep our economy moving forward."

The International Air Transport Association said as of Tuesday, it was still too early to judge what impact the influenza will have on the industry's bottom line.

"But it is sure that anything that shakes the confidence of passengers has a negative impact on the business," IATA Director General and CEO Giovanni Bisignani said in a statement. "And the timing could not be worse given all of the other economic problems airlines are facing."

Even before news of the flu broke out, the industry was performing poorly. Passenger demand in March 2009 fell more than 11 percent from March 2008 levels, according to the Air Transport Association, and airlines have cut international passenger capacity by 4.4 percent. In 2008, 1.7 million Mexican residents traveled by air to the United States and 5.9 million U.S. residents flew to Mexico, according to the Department of Commerce

The ATA says that aircraft cabins in fact contain lower levels of airborne contaminants than other indoor spaces, thanks to the design of aircraft ventilation systems. Airlines are nevertheless monitoring passengers for signs of illness — two sick travelers were removed from planes at O'Hare International Airport this week, the Chicago Tribune reported. Neither passenger proved to be infected with the H1N1 virus, however.

Most airlines are also waiving fees for rebooking flights for passengers scheduled to travel to and from Mexico in the next few weeks, including American Airlines, Delta, and Mexicana Airlines.

American Airlines said it is operating its normal schedule to and from Mexico today – 42 flights to 14 cities. The airline has not cancelled any flights because of the flu and is not aware of any ill passengers onboard any of its flights who have tested positive for H1N1.

Still, with non-essential travel being discouraged, bookings will most likely see a decline, American Airlines spokesperson Andrea Huguely said.

Roger Dow, President and CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said in a statement today that travelers should take note of the fact that, in spite of the vice president's comments this morning, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other experts say the flu should not discourage people from traveling to or within the United States.

"Elected officials must strike a delicate balance of accurately and adequately informing citizens of health concerns without unduly discouraging travel and other important economic activity," Dow said. "According to President Obama, swine flu is a cause for concern, but not panic. President Obama's measured and responsible comments are appropriate and should provide useful guidance to other elected officials."

This story was updated with comments from American Airlines.

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