Gulf holds its breath

With the double edge sword of war in Iraq and the SARS virus in the Far East, the region’s airlines are hoping that the virus circumvents the Gulf.

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By  John Irish Published  April 10, 2003

Airline passengers in the Gulf may be facing the threat of the Severe Acute Respiratry Syndrome (SARS) virus, which so far has turned up in 32 countries worldwide, after a World Health Organisation (WHO) official confirmed today (April 10) that the organisation was looking into suspected cases in the UAE.

“At the moment there are no cases. The cases mentioned in the UAE are only suspected and are now under discussion. Nothing has come out of it at the moment. The cases are just suspected,” Dr Said Arnaout, WHO representative for the UAE told Arabian Business.

The official’s comments come just days after an American expatriate, who returned to Kuwait form southeast Asia was reported to have contracted the virus as reported by the Kuwait Times on April 06.

“Doctors suspected a lady of foreign origin showing symptoms similar to SARS after returning to Kuwait from Southeast Asia,” said Abdul Raheem Al Zaid, undersecretary of the Kuwait Health Ministry.

Nevertheless, despite the UAE Health Ministry declaring that the country was SARS free, health officials in the country have been quick to adopt WHO travel advice to postpone all non-essential travel to Hong Kong, Singapore, China and Hanoi. The ministry has also alerted all hospitals and doctors about the SARS virus.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) announced today that passenger numbers worldwide had dropped 17.4% over the same period last year and travel industry experts confirmed that Far East destinations were suffering.

“Our bookings to the Far East have been reduced to a great extent. Usually, we have lots of people travelling there. Unfortunately, because of SARS, the Far East traffic has come down considerably,” said Eric Dass, operations manager at Al Tayer Travel Agency.

Despite the disease spreading around the globe predominantly through air travel, the region’s airlines have taken a guarded approach.

Emirates has not revised its schedules to the Far East, opting for a series of precautionary measures based on liasing with WHO officials, other regional airlines and the UAE’s Health Ministry.

“We have briefed all our cabin crews on how to look out for patients with SARS symptoms, what to do if they suspect a patient. We’ve equipped the flights with extra facemasks, surgical gloves and biohazard waste disposal bags; these are all precautions,” said a spokesperson for Emirates.

In addition, the official claimed that while the disease was a cause for concern, it was not a cause for panic.

“We feel the fear is spreading a lot faster than the disease,” said the official.

For passengers travelling to and from Hong Kong, Emirates’ sole destination to the affected region, the airline will reroute and cancel tickets free of charge should passengers wish to alter their travel arrangements.

Much like the Dubai-based airline, Gulf Air, which operates services to both Hong Kong and Singapore, has continued its services to the Far East despite a drop in demand.

“I wouldn’t say it has had a dramatic impact on our loads, we have had to manage the situation and watch it carefully, it has impacted to a small degree. Until quite recently the WHO had said that people should continue with their travel plans, and only recently they imposed that sort of advice to stop travelling to Hong Kong,” said Ann Tullis, consultant for Gulf Air.

However, airlines based in the Far East are being forced to take a different approach. Hong Kong, which has the largest number of SARS cases, has been worse hit.
Cathay Pacific (CX), the island’s flagship carrier reduced its operations by 10% on March 31.

“Safety is always our top priority. We have been vigilant since the outbreak of SARS and have initiated a host of precautionary health measures in response to protecting the travelling public as well as our staff. CX is in full co-operation with the health authorities to ensure ultimate safety thorough investigations and follow-up procedures on a daily basis,” said Navin Chellaram, Cathay Pacific’s UAE manager.

While airlines have so far not axed services to and from the Middle East, the situation could change should the global situation worsen and passenger demand fall.

"We are looking at the various situations and if they warrant any drastic action such as cancellation of flights and so on, we will definitely have to do that. But only if there are proven cases and the situation gets out of hand," said Dato Tuan Ibrahim, regional general manager, Middle East, Malaysian Airlines.

“Currently, frequency [between Dubai and Singapore] has not been affected, but for Singapore Airlines, capacity is always weighed against demand,” said Sam Abraham, district sales manager, UAE, Singapore Airlines.

“Therefore, if we have a daily frequency now it’s because the current level of demand justifies it. However, if there is a variation in that situation we will take a quick decision on what to do.”

SARS has now claimed the lives of more than 100 people worldwide and infected more than 2700. While experts have not identified the exact cause of the virus, symptoms include fever, aches, dry cough and shortness of breath.

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