This Day (Lagos)

10 August 2014

West Africa: Ebola Takes Toll On Air Transportation in West Africa

If the dreaded Ebola disease continues to spread, it would lead to more cancellations of flights to the West Africa sub region and airlines and other organisations in the industry will lose huge revenue. Chinedu Eze writes on the economic consequences if air travel is banned in West Africa because of the spread of Ebola

Air travellers are always weary of contagious diseases, but considering that over one billion people travel by air every year, one can understand the current panic over the seeming vulnerability of air travellers. But airlines always take precautionary measures. Whenever there are infectious diseases of high magnitude, airlines react by stopping operations to the areas where such diseases are prevalent.

It was when Ebola disease killed Patrick Sawyer, the Liberian American who visited Nigeria to attend a conference that the media became inaundated with the reports, the danger and literature about how to avoid the dreaded disease. Meanwhile, the fear of the disease has gripped Nigeria and the world.

The late Sawyer arrived Nigeria with Asky Airlines. For bringing him to Nigeria, the Nigeria Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) banned the airline. Considering that Nigeria is a big market to it, operating about 30 flights to Nigeria every week, Asky decided to stop operations to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia where the disease is endemic. Before the airline was banned, Nigeria's biggest carrier, Arik Air had decided to stop operations to these countries.

As if taking a cue from Arik and Asky, Emirates few days ago announced that it had stopped operation to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia - the countries where the present wave of Ebola started. British Airways on Tuesday followed suit and cancelled its flights. But the industry and travellers are fervently hoping that the disease be halted urgently by concerned authorities so that more airlines would not continue to ground their operations to these countries because of the negative economic implication.

If the Ebola continues to spread, airlines may be tempted to stop operations to the whole of West Africa. This will be disastrous to the sub region. It will ground the West African countries, including Nigeria economically. Until last Monday, the only known victim of the disease in Nigeria was Sawyer, but it was announced that one of the doctors that attended to him was also infected. This has complicated the situation and the hope that after 21 days from July 25 when Sawyer died if nothing happened to those that attended to him, Nigeria would be declared free of the disease.

Air Travel and Infectious Diseases Literature on the spread of germs by air travel is replete with incidents of efforts to curtail spread which sometimes lead to abortion of flight operations. But fear is said to always be greater than the actual danger of infection. But informed sources said there are several important ways in which air travel can influence the global spread of emerging and established infectious disease. Infections may be spread on the aircraft through close contact and large droplets; airborne spread through small-particle aerosols, as in the case of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS); or even through contaminated food. Aircraft can transport infected disease vectors, such as rats or malaria-infected mosquitoes, as nonpaying passengers. Perhaps the greatest concern for global health, however, is the ability of a person with a contagious illness to travel to virtually any part of the world within 24 hours.

"The importance of air travel to the spread of seasonal influenza was recently demonstrated by empirical data showing that the spread of influenza was delayed by the decrease in air travel after the attacks of 11 September 2001," reported Journal of Infectious Diseases.

Risk of Contracting Ebola in Flight Out of the three diseases that frightened travelers, governments and airlines in recent times, Ebola may be the most deadly. When SARS started some years ago, several effective efforts were made to curtail the spread in air transport. Looking back, it has been agreed that the risk of transmission in aircraft was very low. It was reported that it was only four flights that were associated with possible transmission onboard.

But Associated Press reported that flights provided the quickest way to get from one part of the world to another - for deadly contagious diseases as well as for people. "In the spring of 2003, the respiratory virus SARS journeyed to five countries in 24 hours after emerging in rural China. Airline and tourism industries lost billions of dollars worldwide because people were afraid to travel and governments ordered flights canceled."

But bird flu was a more dangerous disease than SARS and Ebola is the worst. Planes provide a good environment for spreading disease. Passengers are in close quarters and confined for hours, and multiple people may sit in the same seat between cleanings as the jet makes different stops. But air transport is very crucial in the workings of world economy. In Doha, Qatar in June this year, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) celebrated its 70th anniversary at its AGM. The Director General and CEO of IATA, Tony Tyler, noted in his address, "Today, aviation is the life blood of the global economy. The industry supports over 58 million jobs and $2.4 trillion in annual economic activity. It creates jobs for Kenyan farmers who sell fresh flowers in world markets. It facilitates global supply chains so that workers in many nations can collaborate to build computers, cars and even airplanes.

"Aviation delivers many of the real world goods that are traded in the virtual shops of internet commerce. As a catalyst for economic and social development, aviation and the businesses that we support have spread prosperity and lifted countless people from poverty. "The intangibles create even greater value. Flying brings people together-families, friends and business colleagues. It helps minds to meet and exchange ideas. It gives people the freedom to be almost anywhere in just 24 hours. And it has turned our wonderfully big planet into a wonderfully small world of enormous and wonderful opportunities." Impact on Economy This advantage is also a disadvantage in the spread of Ebola. Many travelers in West Africa, especially in Nigeria where sensitisation about the disease is high, are petrified by fear. In fact, fear, more that the disease, is infecting the people. The Deputy Managing Director and Head of Flight Operations of Arik Air, Captain Ado Sanusi, told THISDAY on Tuesday in Lagos that the cancellation of flight operations to West Africa would have very negative economic impact in the affected countries.

"Economically, it will have very bad impact. You remember SARS outbreak in the Far East and the impact on small airlines. In fact, some airlines had to go under and some had to seek government support. If Ebola is not controlled, it will lead to the same situation. But for airlines to say they will stop flying to West Africa will be a drastic and extreme measure to take. They can reduce or cancel flights to the countries where there is outbreak of the disease already and the keyword, there is outbreak. Yes, you need to contain the outbreak to make sure it is under control. And there is a system out in place to ensure that it is under control," Sanusi said. On what cancellation of flights to the affected countries will do to these nations, he said, "This will further shrink their economies.

There will be negative impact on the country's economy. This will include everything; not only the airlines, commerce and other things, but even the aviation support industry will be affected. You are talking about the airport, the catering, handling companies, the airlines, oil marketers that are supplying Jet A1 to them. It will affect the entire economy of that sub sector. We will see a reduction in the countries that are affected."

Arik was the first airline to announce the cancellation of flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone. On the impact of that decision on the airline's finances, Sanusi said, "I cannot put figures to it but we are losing a lot of revenue. We are losing revenue because of daily flights. We have about four flights to Liberia and about three flights to Freetown and we were connecting Ghana with Freetown. We were also connecting Ghana with Monrovia and Banjul, so there are a lot of economic activities that are going on within the West Africa countries, which now is not being done. Of course there is economic loss there. Movement will be affected and restricted."

Studies have shown that Nigerian businessmen and women are galvanising the economies of the West African sub region and there are several flights from the capital of one country to another in the West Coast and in Central Africa. It is likely that passenger movement in the sub region would help to spread the disease if flights were not cancelled and if the airlines operating these routes did not take extra measures. But if more airlines cancel flights in West Africa, it will drastically affect the economy of many countries in the region.

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