Ebola fears ground airline stocks

Shares of airlines plummeted Wednesday as investors got spooked after the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention reported a second Dallas health care worker who is infected with the often-deadly disease took an airline flight to visit her family, perhaps after being infected.

Amber Vinson, along with her 26-year-old colleague Nina Pham, who also was infected, had treated Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan, the first person in the U.S. to succumb to the disease, at Dallas' Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.

Vinson, 29, has been sent to Atlanta's Emory University for treatment. She shouldn't have gone on the flight, according to the CDC. Officials are disinfecting Vinson's apartment, as they did with Pham's. CDC officials have asked anyone who traveled on the same Frontier Airlines flight as Vinson on Oct. 13 to contact them.

Frontier Airlines has said the jetliner that transported Vinson has been "thoroughly cleaned" and has been temporarily removed from service. The CDC is planning to monitor passengers who were on the flight to make sure they aren't infected.

"Frontier will continue to work closely with CDC and other governmental agencies to ensure proper protocols and procedures are being followed," the airline said. Scientists have repeatedly said people can't catch Ebola unless they're in contact with an infected individual's bodily fluids.

Much of the airline sector experienced a major downdraft on Wall Street Wednesday as the overall market tanked for many reasons beyond the Ebola scare. The Dow Jones industrial average fell by more than 460 points earlier in today's trading, and was down around 270 at 3 p.m., hitting its lowest level in six months.

Shares of United Continental (UAL), plummeted $2.78, or 6.88 percent, to $40.39, while American Airlines (AAL), the world's largest airline, plunged $1.41, or 4.5 percent, to $30.10. Delta Airlines (DAL) dropped 99 cents, or 3 percent, to $31.80.

Discounter Southwest Airlines (LUV) fell 93 cents, or 3 percent to $29.07, while JetBlu (JBLU), a discounter active in the Northeast, fell 3.9 percent, to $9.40.

"This is an emotional kind of thing," said aviation consultant Mike Boyd in an interview, adding that the industry is benefiting from positive trends such as falling oil prices. "It's not like every flight has a Typhoid Mary on it."

The drop in airline stock prices is "great news for any savvy investor" and represents a buying opportunity, he said.

According to public health officials, more than 4,000 people have been infected with the Ebola virus, mostly in Africa. If the disease isn't brought under control, officials from the World Health Organization have predicted that as many as 10,000 new cases could soon emerge on a weekly basis.

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    Jonathan Berr is an award-winning journalist and podcaster based in New Jersey whose main focus is on business and economic issues.