By Jamie Freed
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd <0293.HK> will allow all crew members and frontline employees to wear surgical masks due to concerns over a new coronavirus, and said passengers to and from Wuhan, China, could change or cancel flights for free through March 31.
The airline had earlier said only cabin crew operating mainland China flights could wear masks, in response to the airline’s flight attendants calling 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.
“Due to the evolving information from health authorities, we will allow crew members and frontline airport employees to wear surgical face masks when on duty at their discretion,” Cathay said in a statement.
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.
Wuhan’s local government said it would close all urban transport networks and suspend outgoing flights from the city as of 10 a.m. on Thursday (0200 GMT), state media reported, adding that the government said citizens should not leave the city unless there were special circumstances.
The Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union said on Tuesday 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.
On Wednesday evening, Cathay said on its website that rebooking, rerouting and refund charges would be waived for all tickets booked on or before Jan. 21, arriving to or departing from Wuhan through March 31, an extension from the Feb. 15 date listed the prior evening.
Deaths from China’s new flu-like virus rose to 17 on Wednesday, with more than 540 cases confirmed. The virus has already spread beyond Wuhan to population centers including Beijing, Shanghai, Macau and Hong Kong.
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 spread.
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.
(Reporting by Jamie Freed in Sydney; additional reporting by Donny Kwok in Hong Kong and Brenda Goh in Shanghai; Editing by Michael Perry, Raju Gopalakrishnan and Lisa Shumaker)