Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd will allow cabin crew to wear a surgical mask while operating mainland China flights due to concerns over a new coronavirus, and passengers to Wuhan to change or cancel flights without charge through February 15.
The airline's flight attendant had on Tuesday called for permission to wear masks on all flights globally as cases have also been confirmed in the United States, Thailand, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
Concern looms over Lunar New Year travel
The coronavirus outbreak, which began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, struck as millions of Chinese prepared to travel for the Lunar New Year, heightening contagion risks. It poses a fresh threat to demand for the airline, which has been battered by months of sometimes violent anti-government protests in Hong Kong.
The Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union said it had received a "tremendous" amount of emails and messages from members concerned over catching the virus given they are exposed to over 300 passengers from numerous places on a single flight.
"All of them are worried about the risk they are taking every time they go to work," the union said on its Facebook page on Tuesday. "It is time for the Company to properly address their concerns and allow Cabin Crew to wear masks on all flights."
The crew can choose to wear a mask while operating on China flights
Cathay said on Wednesday it had told the crew they could use their discretion and choose to wear a surgical mask while operating on mainland China flights. On Tuesday evening, its website said with immediate effect, rebooking, rerouting and refund charges would be waived for all tickets arriving to or departing from Wuhan through Feb. 15.
China's aviation regulator on Tuesday evening told mainland carriers to refund or change flights to Wuhan without charge at the request of passengers, which analysts at Daiwa said had affected more than 24 airlines.
Some other travel firms are also allowing free cancellations on bookings to Wuhan. Authorities have confirmed more than 300 cases of the virus in China, mostly in Wuhan where authorities on Tuesday said six people had died. The disease has spread to other parts of China, including five cases in capital Beijing.
Cathay's virus frontline
Cathay said that as required by the Hong Kong health authorities, it was distributing health declaration forms and will be making face masks and antiseptic wipes available at the boarding gate to passengers traveling from Wuhan to Hong Kong.
"Our frontline staff are reminded to maintain good personal and environmental hygiene, and to remain alert and vigilant while being on the lookout for passengers presenting with infectious disease symptoms," the airline said.
Cathay has already been hit by plummeting demand as a result of anti-government protests in Hong Kong, leading it to cut capacity and defer the delivery of four planes. Shares in Cathay have fallen by 10% since the start of January as the virus has spread.
Mainland Chinese could remain under pressure
Jefferies analysts said shares in Cathay and mainland Chinese carriers could remain under pressure for some time if the coronavirus situation paralleled the 2003 SARS outbreak and cases continued to increase. That coronavirus outbreak killed nearly 800 people.
"During SARS in 2003, share prices only bottomed two months after first being recognized by the WTO on 26 Feb 2003 despite China's total passenger traffic declining until June 2003," the analysts said in a note to clients on Tuesday.