China’s coronavirus outbreak has triggered an unprecedented clampdown on travel to and from the world’s second-largest economy, leaving thousands of people stranded across the globe and dealing a major blow to the international aviation industry.
At least 14 countries and territories, from the U.S. to India and Hong Kong, have now introduced some form of China-related travel restrictions as policy makers try to contain the spread of a virus that has killed more than 560 people and infected nearly 30,000. Airlines suspended 26% of scheduled services in and out of the country from Jan. 23 to Feb. 3, according to Cirium, an air-travel analysis firm.
The abrupt and sometimes chaotic implementation of the curbs has left travelers like Neren Gaffud stuck in limbo. The 39-year-old, who works as a housekeeper in Hong Kong, was visiting her family in the Philippines when President Rodrigo Duterte banned travel to the financial hub, along with mainland China and Macau.
The restrictions were announced Sunday, the day Gaffud flew from her home province to Manila. While she worried about her trip back to Hong Kong, she was told it wouldn’t be a problem. That changed by the time she tried to check in for her Monday morning flight operated by Cebu Pacific.
“It was a total shock to all of us,” Gaffud said. “There were many overseas workers on that flight who needed to get back to Hong Kong. It was very frustrating. All some of us could do was cry.”
“We had to sit and sleep on the pavement. We were also worried we might catch the virus because it was so crowded,” she said, adding that some people were panicking about losing their jobs. “Some employers have said they will need to end their contracts and find other help.”
Olivia, a Hong Kong-based insurance agent, is among the thousands of residents across greater China now caught in the middle of the travel curbs. She traveled to the mainland during the Lunar New Year holiday to visit her mother for the first time in 25 years, and will have to be quarantined if she wants to come back to Hong Kong. Elsewhere, an estimated 5,000 Chinese tourists are stuck in Indonesia’s popular resort island of Bali after the country banned direct flights to and from the mainland.
While it’s too early to gauge the full extent of the impact on airlines, OAG Aviation Worldwide Ltd. says China has never seen a rush of flight suspensions this large.
Carriers from Delta Air Lines Inc. to British Airways have halted all services to the country. Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd., Hong Kong’s dominant airline, is slashing mainland flights by 90% and putting nearly 27,000 staff on rotating unpaid leave from March 1 to June 30.
Investors have noticed. The Bloomberg World Airlines Index has dropped 5% since mid-January and is trading at a nearly seven-year low versus the MSCI World Index of global shares.
Many Chinese aviation companies, including the maker of the country’s first homegrown single-aisle jet, have pulled out of next week’s Singapore Air Show, a biennial event billed as the biggest aerospace and defense industry gathering in Asia.
The coronavirus will cast a long shadow over the confab, which often brings blockbuster deals for Boeing Co. and Airbus SE. The manufacturers are already struggling with pressing issues such as the global grounding of the 737 Max, production delays and a bribery scandal, while airlines in the fast-growing aviation market have been strained by challenges such as the impact of anti-government protests on travel to Hong Kong.
“It’s going to be a very tepid, lukewarm show,” said Mark Martin, founder of Dubai-based Martin Consulting, which advises airlines and airports. “I am not expecting anything earth-shattering with so many companies canceling due to the virus.”
Investor pessimism toward the industry could deepen as the virus continues to spread. Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, said the crisis could persist throughout the first half of this year and the number of infections may run into the hundreds of thousands, with several thousand people likely to die before it is brought under control. Declines in Chinese tourist numbers to the U.S. will surpass the more than 50% slump during SARS in 2003, he said.
For people like Gaffud in the Philippines, the stakes are far higher than a canceled vacation.
In a desperate attempt to get back to Hong Kong, where she has worked for nine years, Gaffud tried to book a flight through Bangkok only to be denied by immigration officials. Attempts to fly via Singapore also failed, she said.
Exhausted after the 24-hour ordeal, Gaffud decided to take the long bus ride back to her home village, where concern over the virus has caused a shortage of face masks. Gaffud’s family decided to skip church on Sunday and watch mass on television instead.
“We are being careful and avoiding crowds — everyone is,” she said. “The only thing we can do is wait.”
–With assistance from Anurag Kotoky, Angus Whitley and Bei Hu