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Airline, travel sectors ready for swine flu threat

SINGAPORE – The global airline and travel sectors battened down the hatches Tuesday for a possible swine flu pandemic which could deal another blow to two industries already reeling from the economic crisis.

As images of people wearing face masks in public resurrected grim memories of the SARS health scare in 2003, analysts appealed for calm, saying it was too early to speculate on the impact of the new threat.

"It’s another kick in the teeth for travel and tourism. We could really do without this," Dale Lawrence, communications director for the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA), told AFP.

But Lawrence and other industry watchers stressed that there is no pandemic yet and while travellers should heed health advisories they should not allow panic to rule their decisions.

"We would just urge the entire industry and the travelling public to keep this issue in perspective. This is not a pandemic yet," Lawrence said.

With the likely death toll in Mexico, the epicentre of the outbreak, now standing at 152, the World Health Organisation (WHO) raised its flu pandemic alert level from three to four, although experts noted the situation has not reached pandemic levels.

The number of confirmed cases in the United States more than doubled on Monday to 44 and Britain and Spain said they had registered patients sick with swine flu, the first cases in Europe.

Countries with suspected infections include New Zealand (with 66), Australia (17), Colombia (nine), Chile (eight), Denmark, Sweden and Switzerland (five each), Ireland (three) and Israel, France and South Korea (one each).

"It’s too early to say what will be the impact on the industry," Albert Tjoeng, spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in Asia, told AFP.

He said IATA, which has forecast global airlines to lose USD 4.7 billion (EUR 3.6 billion, CHF 5.4 billion) this year due to the economic slump, is coordinating closely with the WHO and the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

"IATA has made available best practice guidelines to help airlines deal with public health emergencies," Tjoeng said.

"Along with a general template for dealing with public health emergencies, IATA’s guidance material covers maintenance, passenger agents, cabin crew, cleaning crew and cargo."

Singapore Airlines, hammered by the economic downturn, did not want to speculate on the impact of the latest health threat but was making preparations.

"We have standard operating procedures in place based on the experience gained from handling the SARS outbreak," an airline spokesman said, referring to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome health threat that grounded planes across East Asia in 2003.

"For example, staff have been briefed on the nature of the disease and are on the alert for customers who appear unwell," he added.

"A taskforce… is also monitoring the situation. We are in touch with the relevant authorities and will take all necessary measures in the event that they are required."

SIA said customer safety was paramount "and we will work with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore and the relevant health agencies to ensure their well-being".

Peter Harbison, managing director of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation consultancy, noted that some airline and related stocks which plunged Monday following the first wave of reports on swine flu were stabilising.

"I think there will be some sort of a waiting period," he said, suggesting there was a need to know more about the swine flu virus before making a more intelligent assessment.

Initial cancellations have already taken place, however.

A spokeswoman for Dynasty Travel in Singapore said one group of about 10 people scrapped a tour to New Zealand scheduled in June.

"Customers are afraid of the swine flu," she told AFP.

The New Zealand government said Tuesday it was investigating a further possible 56 cases of swine flu among people who recently returned from Mexico or the United States.

It follows a weekend announcement that nine high school students and a teacher who had returned from Mexico had tested positive for influenza A and were likely to have contracted swine flu.

SA Tours, one of Singapore’s biggest tour agencies, said some travellers to the United States, especially California, were considering cancelling their trip. California has reported 11 swine flu infections.

Lawrence, the PATA spokesman, said fear and panic could be the worst enemy now.

"That was the problem with SARS. It was a fear of the unknown," he said.

AFP / Expatica