Should you cancel your flights? What are airlines doing? Here's a quick primer
By Mike Arnot
Published: Jan 27, 2020
Shanghai/China-Jan.2020: New type coronavirus pneumonia in Wuhan has been spreading into many cities in China. People wearing surgical mask sitting in subway in Shanghai Image: Shutterstock
The death toll from a novel coronavirus has now reached at least 76, with most of the more than 2,000 cases reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the epicenter of the disease. At least 10 other countries have also reported cases, and five people in the United States have been diagnosed; all had recently returned from China.
Here’s what travelers making their way to or from China can expect.
Where was the disease first discovered? The outbreak of the deadly coronavirus is centered in Wuhan, a city of 11 million and the capital of the Hubei province in China. Wuhan is a major manufacturing center, but not known as a tourist destination.
Travelers to Wuhan are likely visiting friends and family, or are business travelers connected to that city’s manufacturing industry. Most business travelers will have already returned home as the factories recently closed for the Lunar New Year — as is tradition. Last week, Chinese authorities imposed a blanket travel ban on Wuhan and surrounding cities in Hubei province, a population of 35 million people. No planes, trains or buses are going in and out.
What are airlines doing? All flights in and out of Wuhan have been suspended, and airlines worldwide have announced that they will allow passengers who are traveling to, from or through Beijing or Shanghai to rebook their itineraries without a change fee. There are restrictions, however.
Delta Air Lines states that no refunds will be issued and rebooked travel must begin before Feb. 29; passengers may cancel their itinerary in exchange for a future travel credit (but with payment of any difference in fare and the applicable change fee.)
American Airlines will permit travelers to delay their trips for up to one year from the original ticket date without change fees (but with payment of any difference in fare). United Airlines added Chengdu (in addition to Beijing and Shanghai) to its waiver, and will allow passengers to rebook without change fees (but with payment of any difference in fare) for trips after Feb. 7. Similarly, Air Canada offers a waiver, with the option to cancel the itinerary in exchange for a future travel credit, and Lufthansa allows for changed itineraries for trips before Sept. 30. There is no waiver policy in place for Emirates flights, but those with upcoming bookings are recommended to call the airline for guidance.
Cathay Pacific, the Hong Kong-based carrier, and Cathay Dragon, its regional subsidiary which operates in mainland China, are permitting passengers to rebook flight to mainland China, so long as passengers travel before March 31. Travelers flying to China to join a group tour, including from Hong Kong to mainland China, should contact their tour provider. Travelers anticipating visiting China in the coming weeks should monitor their airline’s website for updates.
In a first since the SARS crisis in 2002 and 2003, Cathay Pacific is permitting its crew and staff to wear surgical masks at work. Likewise, American Airlines: “While it is not medically recommended, American will allow flight attendants to wear masks on flights to and from Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong,” said Curtis Blessing, an American spokesman, in a statement. The masks are ubiquitous across Asia, but not common in North America.
American, United and Delta are providing additional hand-sanitizing wipes for flights between the United States and China.
Dr. Paulo Alves, the global medical director at MedAire, a Phoenix provider of in-flight, virtual medical care to airlines and their passengers worldwide, said masks are meant to contain to the droplets that someone emits when sneezing or coughing. Passengers are not being issued surgical masks by airlines.
What should travelers expect at airports in the U.S. and in China? Foreign and domestic airlines operate dozens of daily flights from the United States to China, primarily to Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai. China Southern operated direct flights between Kennedy Airport, San Francisco International and Wuhan. Before the travel lockdown, passengers could have connected in China to Wuhan through code-share partners such as Cathay Pacific, Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines.
The decision behind which American airports screen passengers is made by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In a statement last week, the CDC said it is establishing protocols and procedures for screening passengers. Other than Kennedy, the four other domestic airports that are screening passengers for signs of infection are San Francisco, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, Los Angeles International and Atlanta.
However, Delta Air Lines said in a statement that other airports in the United States may also be screening passengers who recently traveled through Wuhan.
In Asia and the United States, passengers are scanned with thermal devices to measure their temperature. Passengers with symptoms such as high fever may undergo additional screening, and even off-site monitoring at specialized facilities.
Should travelers to China cancel their flights? At this time, the CDC has recommended that travelers avoid all nonessential travel only to Wuhan. The agency maintains a website that travelers can check to get the latest recommendations.
“There is no evidence of human-to-human transmission outside of Wuhan. If you’re not heading to those specific cities, you should be fine,” Alves said, referencing a growing list of cities in Hubei province covered by the travel ban.
He added that travelers should expect longer transit times, as there may be “health and temperatures screening at airports, railway stations, docks and long-haul bus stations.”
Alves also cautioned that travelers should reconsider travel to China if they are already sick with a cold or the flu. Within China, “some locations have implemented screening and travelers may face quarantine and testing,” he said.
Are tourist destinations in China closed? China boasts more than 55 UNESCO World Heritage sites, and some of the most popular, including the National Museum of China and the Forbidden City (both in Beijing), were closed over the weekend.
The Badaling section of the Great Wall of China, a popular attraction located some 40 miles outside of Beijing, was also closed, as were the Shanghai Disney Resort and Hong Kong Disneyland Park (the hotels at the Hong Kong Disneyland Resort remain open). No date has been announced for reopening any of these sites. In addition, multiday celebrations for the Lunar New Year have been canceled in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
Wuhan, at the center of the outbreak, lies on the Yangtze River. The river is a popular multi-night cruise route that includes visits to the Three Gorges Dam, which is in Hubei province. No official announcements on the status of these river cruises have been announced, however, travelers that have booked cruises should contact their travel agency
What precautions can travelers take? “Those universal things like washing your hands are always recommended,” Alves said. He also suggested passengers avoid touching their faces, practice coughing etiquette and not cough into the environment.
“Keep some distance from people who are obviously sick and maintain good personal hygiene,” he added.
The advice mirrors that given to travelers during cold and flu season. While seat backs and tray tables on long-haul aircraft like those flying to China from the United States are individually wiped down by ground crew between flights, passengers may wish to bring their own wipes for a second pass.