In 2003, when the world was wracked by both the outbreak of SARS in eastern Asia and the second Gulf War in the Middle East, global air traffic fell by a massive 19 percent. Air travel carriers in the Asia-Pacific areas lost billions in revenue and a large chunk of passengers. And now, there’s the Wuhan coronavirus. As the number of cases around the world rises, hundreds, if not thousands, of flights to and from China are being cancelled.

British Airways cancelled its regular daily routes between Beijing, Shanghai, and London. Cathay Pacific Airways has cut down its flights from Hong Kong to mainland China by 50 percent. When the U.S. State Department raised its China Travel Advisory to Level 4 (Do Not Travel), American Airlines and Delta suspended all flights between the U.S. and China.

American, Delta, and United are providing travel waivers, waiving cancellation fees, and providing refunds for flights that were not completed due to Wuhan coronavirus fears, and we assume airlines all across the world are doing the same.

“The airlines are already losing a significant number of passengers because people are not traveling voluntarily,” said aviation management consultant Austin Horowitz. “China represents about 3.8 percent of all the international seats for American, Delta, and United. It’s a small portion of their international ticket sales, but still a significant number.”

The travel industry is usually the hardest hit by pandemic threats. During the 2003 SARS outbreak, stocks of U.S. airlines dropped by more than 30 percent, Barron’s reported.

Although Wuhan coronavirus is less deadly, so far, that doesn’t stop people from being reminded of the 2003 epidemic, especially as leaders around the world, fueled by mass hysteria, take extreme measures up to and including travel bans to reduce the risk of disease transmission.

But, Horowitz says, U.S. airlines shouldn’t be the ones calling the shots about who travels and who doesn’t. “Perhaps there’s a family member who wants to return to China or a doctor who wishes to volunteer,” he said, prior to the State Department’s escalation of its travel advisory. “It isn’t the airlines’ place to make that decision; it’s the U.S. government.”

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