Africa’s air routes are increasingly at risk as the Ebola virus prompts local carriers to avoid the worst-affected areas, demand weakens and Korean Air Lines Co. (003490) halts services thousands of miles from the outbreak’s epicenter, signaling a broader threat to the continent’s travel links.
Airlines from Gambia, Togo and Nigeria have halted flights to Ebola-hit states, while Korean Air will end operations to Kenya on Aug. 20 after a World Health Organization official in the country, which has suffered zero Ebola cases, described it as “high risk” because of airline ties to the rest of Africa.
Among carriers with the greatest West African exposure, Air France and Brussels Airlines -- Deutsche Lufthansa AG (LHA)’s main link there -- said last night that they’re screening departing customers more carefully, while persisting with flights. Korean Air’s decision to scrap its only sub-Saharan route could herald a wider review of operations in the face of a disease that has killed more than 1,000 people.
“When you have long incubation periods it’s possible that someone would be exposed but not yet exhibiting symptoms and could travel unknowingly -- aviation is a potential vector for this,” said Robert Mann, president of aviation consultant R.W. Mann & Co. Asian customers are especially conscious of personal security, which “causes a drop in willingness travel.”
The spread of Ebola may be worse than the reported cases suggest, with staff at infection sites seeing “evidence that the number of reported cases and deaths vastly underestimate the magnitude of the outbreak,” the WHO said yesterday.
While the outbreak has been almost exclusively restricted to Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, where a reduction in flights could undermine a burgeoning ore-extraction industry, concern about the potential for it to spread via air travel has increased after a Liberian man carrying the disease flew to Nigeria and died there, infecting others.
At the same time, Ebola is diminishing travel demand. Rio Tinto Group, the second-largest mining company, has restricted staff movements in Guinea, and MTN Group Ltd. (MTN), the No. 1 mobile-phone carrier in sub-Saharan Africa, said five expatriate staff have left Liberia as flight options out of the country shrink.
Korea’s decision to exit Nairobi, so far removed from the outbreak, is nevertheless an overreaction, Isabelle Nuttall, director of the WHO’s department for global capacity, alert and response, said yesterday at a press briefing in Geneva.
Countries simply need to take steps to ensure that sick people don’t join flights, though even if they get aboard, the likelihood of other passengers and crew coming into contact with the bodily fluids that carry Ebola is small, Nuttall said, warning authorities to be on guard for a spate of false alarms.
“In the coming days there will be rumors all over the world,” she said. “Let’s all be ready to deal with these rumors. It’s not because you have fever and you come back from Sierra Leone that you have Ebola.”
Among carriers from countries close to the Ebola outbreak, Gambia Bird, Togo-based Asky Airlines and Nigeria’s Arik Air have all halted at least some flights into the area.
Kenya Airways Ltd., sub-Saharan Africa’s No. 3 airline, yesterday responded to the Korean Air announcement by saying it will continue to fly to the region, while reviewing management protocols in Monrovia and Freetown, the capitals of Liberia and Sierra Leone, to guard against the spread of the virus.
British Airways and Emirates are so far the only major carriers to cancel routes to those countries where the disease is present. BA, a unit of International Consolidated Airlines Group SA (IAG), is continuing daily flights to Lagos and Abuja, its remaining West African destinations, as well as to Nairobi.
Lufthansa spokesman Helmut Tolksdorf said that Europe’s second-biggest airline remains in close contact with relevant authorities, though is not making any changes to its flight schedule for the time being. Brussels Air, the only carrier from outside Africa that serves all three Ebola-hit nations, has consulted the Tropical Institute in Antwerp on the threat.
The Belgian airline, in which Lufthansa has a 45 percent stake, has made no changes to its African network though is monitoring the situation at outstations very closely, spokeswoman Wencke Lemmes said. It has a combined 11 weekly flights to the three countries and 38 a week to Africa overall.
Air France (AF), too, said that “at this stage” it’s maintaining flights to Sierra Leone and Guinea, while putting into place a specific Ebola plan there and in Lagos. Should a passenger exhibit symptoms after boarding they are isolated, given a face mask and directed to use a separate wash room.
Any further severing of aerial links could jeopardize a resurgence in the economies of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea that’s taken hold over the past decade as Chinese companies boost investments to extract metal deposits. Guinea is the No. 1 exporter of bauxite used to make aluminum, and also home to the world’s largest untapped iron-ore reserves, Simandou.
The Ebola outbreak could shave 2 percentage points off economic growth in the three countries, which have a combined gross domestic product of about $14 billion and a population of 20 million people, according to U.S.-based Teneo Intelligence.
Agriculture accounts for more than half of the economies of Sierra Leone and Liberia, where civil wars that lasted for more than 10 years killed hundreds of thousands of people. Most produce in the Ebola-hit states is grown for domestic consumption, and Nestle SA (NESN), the world’s largest food company, said it has limited employee movement there.
There is no vaccine or assured treatment for Ebola, which was first identified in 1976. An ethics panel at the WHO said this week that people in West Africa should be allowed access to promising experimental treatments or vaccines.
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Benedikt Kammel at firstname.lastname@example.org Christopher Jasper, Jacqueline Simmons