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Delta and American Airlines halt flights as U.S. warns travelers to avoid China — how airlines are responding to coronavirus

United, Delta and American Airlines are waiving some cancellation fees; some cruise lines are canceling trips

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By Meera Jagannathan, MarketWatch


Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP via Getty Images
Airports around the world are screening passengers for coronavirus.

As U.S. government officials declared a public-health emergency and warned Americans to avoid all travel to China while the country grapples with a deadly coronavirus outbreak, a growing number of airlines and cruise lines are responding to travel restrictions.

Delta Air Lines /zigman2/quotes/200327741/composite DAL -2.82%   announced Friday that it would temporarily suspend all U.S. flights to China from Feb. 6 through April 30 over coronavirus concerns, with flights continuing to operate until Feb. 5. American Airlines /zigman2/quotes/209207041/composite AAL -4.80%   also said Friday that it would suspend flights to and from mainland China until March 27, following a lawsuit from the union representing the airline’s pilots that sought to halt U.S.-China flights.

Meanwhile, British Airways /zigman2/quotes/208070069/delayed UK:IAG -2.44%  said Wednesday it would temporarily suspend flights to and from Shanghai and Beijing and reassess the situation on Friday. Air Canada /zigman2/quotes/208264916/delayed CA:AC -5.34%   said it would halt all fights to Beijing and Shanghai from Jan. 30 to Feb. 29, after the Canadian government cautioned against non-essential travel.

United Airlines /zigman2/quotes/205037281/composite UAL -3.50%   suspended some flights between Feb. 1 and Feb. 8, citing a decline in demand for air travel to China. Cathay Pacific /zigman2/quotes/203532437/delayed HK:293 -1.16%  , Finnair /zigman2/quotes/200297452/delayed FI:FIA1S -3.79%  , Air France /zigman2/quotes/205396176/delayed FR:AF -3.88%   and Lufthansa /zigman2/quotes/205496028/delayed DE:LHA -2.53%   have all either suspended or reduced flights to and from China. Lufthansa on Monday extended its flight suspensions to mainland China to Feb. 29 for flights to Beijing and Shanghai, and to March 29 for flights to Nanjing, Shenyang and Quingdao.

Don’t miss: As coronavirus infections exceed 4,500, here’s how the illness has spread across the world so rapidly

The new coronavirus was first detected in China’s Wuhan City, a transportation and manufacturing hub, with cases later reported in the U.S. and several other countries including Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, Vietnam and Singapore. This strain of coronavirus had killed at least 361 people and infected 17,205 in China as of Sunday, Chinese officials said . Confirmed cases outside of China totaled 151 as of Monday, according to the World Health Organization , which declared the outbreak a global health emergency last week. Eleven U.S. cases have been confirmed.

What U.S. government agencies have told American travelers

“Do not travel to China due to the novel coronavirus first identified in Wuhan, China,” the State Department said in a travel advisory Thursday, noting that travelers should “be prepared for travel restrictions to be put into effect with little or no advance notice.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also advised travelers to avoid all nonessential travel to China.

China had earlier placed Wuhan and several surrounding cities under a travel ban that spanned air, rail and public transport. The country has also suspended all overseas tour group and package flight/hotel vacation packages.

Also see: Mayor of Wuhan, epicenter of coronavirus outbreak, says 5 million people left the city before travel restrictions were imposed

Airlines are responding with flight suspensions and change-fee waivers

Flights from China and passengers who have traveled to China in the past two weeks will be routed through 11 U.S. airports as of Monday, the Department of Homeland Security said Sunday. “At these eleven airports, the United States Government has established enhanced screening procedures and the capacity to quarantine passengers, if needed,” DHS said .

Officials had earlier screened travelers for the virus at 20 major U.S. airports. These screenings, which involve observing travelers for coronavirus symptoms, administering a questionnaire and taking their temperatures with a non-contact thermometer, are designed to identify sick people and educate travelers about the virus.

Several airlines are accommodating travelers who want to reschedule China-related travel plans. American Airlines said it would allow passengers who were traveling to, through or from Beijing or Shanghai and wanted to reschedule their trip to waive a change fee, given certain stipulations. The airline will also waive change fees for passengers who want to delay their trip up to a year from the original ticket date, with the possibility of paying a difference in fare.

Delta said it would waive change fees for passengers traveling to, through or from Beijing or Shanghai who made a one-time change to a different flight. Travelers can also cancel their trip and apply the unused value to a future flight for up to a year.

United Airlines  also issued travel waivers in response to the outbreak, including refunds for unflown flights to Wuhan, and is waiving change fees for certain flights related to the Beijing, Chengdu and Shanghai airports, with some restrictions. Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific /zigman2/quotes/208114856/delayed CPCAY +1.68%   said it would waive rebooking, rerouting and refund charges for bookings to and from mainland China on certain conditions ; German airline Lufthansa /zigman2/quotes/202917219/delayed DLAKY -1.39% , meanwhile, is allowing certain passengers free rebooking or refunds for their flights in and out of mainland China.

Some cruise lines are canceling trips

“Although risks to passengers and crew are low, cruise lines are implementing screening, prevention and control programs,” says cruise-review site Cruise Critic , a subsidiary of TripAdvisor /zigman2/quotes/206118480/composite TRIP -2.34% . “Lines are also denying boarding to people who have traveled recently to Hubei Province or Wuhan in the past 14 days.”

Cruise companies have also canceled or changed dozens of itineraries, with Costa Cruises, Royal Caribbean /zigman2/quotes/208854639/composite RCL -3.44%  , Azamara, Silversea, Celebrity, Princess /zigman2/quotes/202325446/composite CCL -2.78%  , Star Cruises, Victoria Cruise Lines and MSC Cruises sailings among the cancellations, Cruise Critic reported Friday.

The Bahamas government, meanwhile, instituted a travel ban on non-resident visitors who had visited China in the last 20 days. As this length of time exceeds many cruise lines’ 14- or 15-day time frames, Cruise Critic said , it “could lead to confusion as to who is permitted off the ship.”

A number of Chinese tourist sites have temporarily closed

Several top historical and tourist attractions in China, including the Forbidden City, a stretch of the Great Wall of China near Beijing, Shanghai Disney Resort /zigman2/quotes/203410047/composite DIS -1.87% , the National Library of China and the National Museum of China, have closed as officials try to stem the spread of coronavirus, The Wall Street Journal reported.

McDonald’s /zigman2/quotes/203508018/composite MCD +0.58%   has closed around 300 of its restaurants across China, the Guardian reported Wednesday. Starbucks /zigman2/quotes/207508890/composite SBUX -1.36%  , which extended its earlier Wuhan closings to all Hubei province stores, has shut half its stores in China, the BBC reported.

What to do if you have to travel to China

U.S. travelers who still must travel to China should discuss their travel plans with a health-care provider; avoid contact with people who are sick; stay away from dead or live animals, animal markets and animal products like raw meat; and frequently clean hands using soap and water (for at least 20 seconds) or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, the CDC said . Older travelers and those with underlying health problems could be at greater risk for disease, the agency added.

The CDC also offered guidance for people who had traveled to China in the past two weeks and had symptoms of cough, fever or difficulty breathing: Avoid contact with other people, call ahead to the doctor or emergency room and seek medical attention immediately, avoid travel, cover your nose and mouth area with a sleeve or tissue while sneezing or coughing, and practice frequent hand-washing.

Official recommendations could change at any time

There’s a lot that public-health officials still don’t know about this virus, and the CDC’s recommendations are likely to evolve quickly, Scott Weisenberg, a clinical associate professor of medicine and director of NYU Langone Health’s travel medicine program, told MarketWatch last week.

While officials’ efforts to control the virus’s spread will hopefully succeed, he added, it’s “too soon to say right now” whether that will be the case.

“Right now it’s very early in the course for this, so it’s unclear how contagious [this coronavirus] will be with routine public-health measures that China and other countries are applying,” Weisenberg said.

This story was originally published Jan. 28, 2020, and has been updated.

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