27 August 2014

Nigeria: Ebola, Flights Cancellations and Economic Consequences

Most airlines are cancelling flights to West African countries over fears of the Ebola virus despite World Health Organisation (WHO) advising them against freezing routes to the countries.

Airlines have cancelled more than a third of international flights to three West African countries over fears that an outbreak of the Ebola virus could spread, as more of the countries introduce measures to block visitors from affected areas.

According to OAG, an airline data provider, of 590 monthly flights scheduled to Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, 216 have been cancelled. Although more than a dozen cases of Ebola have been reported in Nigeria, flights to and from the country have not been affected.

Air Côte d'Ivoire, Nigeria's Arik Air, Togo's Asky Airlines, British Airways, Emirates Airlines and Kenya Airways have together cancelled a combined 76 scheduled flights to Guinea, 70 to Liberia and 70 to Sierra Leone, according to data sourced from international travel agencies.

Though Ebola has not been detected in Kenya, Korean Airlines early August suspended flights to and from Kenya in what it said was a measure to prevent the spread of the Ebola virus. The South Korean flag carrier flies to Nairobi, which is its only destination in Africa, three times a week and did not say when it would resume its service.

British Airways early August halted all flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone for one month. The airline said in a statement that it would be keeping the routes under review.

"We have temporarily suspended our flights to and from Liberia and Sierra Leone until 31 August, 2014 due to the deteriorating public health situation in both countries," it said.

Kenya Airways became the latest airline to ground routes to Liberia and Sierra Leone after its health minister recommended a temporary ban, calling the Ebola outbreak "vastly underestimated" and saying it was "expected to continue for some time".

Air France, which though has not suspended any flights, said it requires passengers in Conakry in Guinea, Freetown in Sierra Leone and Lagos in Nigeria to have their temperature taken before boarding an aircraft. "They are only given their boarding card if no medical symptoms are present," a spokeswoman said.

Other airlines have taken similar precautions. Air France crew recently refused to board flights destined for Ebola- affected countries, raising concerns that it could scrap routes.

With fears growing that travel restrictions to affected countries will damage their economies and increase food shortages, WHO last week urged airlines to keep routes to West Africa operational, saying it "does not recommend any ban on international travel or trade."

David Nabarro, UN's new coordinator on the global response on Ebola, on Monday warned that airlines boycotting flights to the region were hampering the response to the fight against the virus.

Nabarro , who has been charged with revitalising the health sectors of Ebola-hit Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, said during a news conference that airlines halting flights to and from the countries that have been afflicted by the outbreak in West Africa were making the UN's efforts "a whole lot harder".

"By isolating the country, it makes it difficult for the UN to do its work," he said.

However, aviation analysts believe airlines have their image to protect and the lives of passengers more than either the profit or any measure to halt the spread of the virus.

Industry analyst Eng. Sheri Kyari believes airlines cannot afford to do this because of the consequence the spread of the virus portends.

"There are issues, if an airline decides to carry an Ebola patient and some other passengers get infected or their staff, a lot of people will sue and the image of the airline will be at stake because of the pursuit of money at the risk of the lives of a lot people. I think it is better to lose some money and preserve your image and standard."

On the option of screening or adopting other preventive measures by airlines, he said "you can pick somebody on board maybe he is just at the edge of the thing manifesting and you are on a six hour flight and the thing manifests in the air, a lot of people will be at risk."

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