Unfriendly skies: Delta, American cut off air service to China as WuFlu expands

Two of the largest US carriers will cut off all service to China because of the coronavirus outbreak, but at least one of them had to be pushed into it. American Airline pilots launched a lawsuit yesterday to force the airline to stop sending them to China and putting them at risk of catching the WuFlu, which has killed hundreds so far. In court today, American Airlines’ attorneys announced the cancellation of all flights into and out of China for at least the next sixty days:

Delta and American Airlines announced Friday they have decided to temporarily suspend all U.S. flights to China. Delta’s suspension begins next week — and lasting through April. American Airlines flights will be halted as of today. The suspensions are due to ongoing concerns about the coronavirus that has infected nearly 10,000 people and killed more than 200 across the globe.

Get out while you can, Sinophiles, because the window is closing as we write this. American Airlines’ suspensions are immediate. Delta will operate its routes for a few more days in order to get its customers out of China, but they’d better hurry:

Between now and Feb. 5, Delta will continue to operate flights to ensure customers looking to exit China have options to do so, the company said.

The last China-bound Delta flight departing the U.S. will leave on Monday, Feb. 3 with the last return flight back to the U.S. departing China on Feb. 5. The airline will continue to monitor the situation closely and may make additional adjustments as the situation continues to evolve.

Both airlines are citing declarations by the State Department and the World Health Organization for their decision:

The announcements came a day after the United States State Department raised its travel advisory to Level 4 — “Do not travel” — and after the World Health Organization declared a global health emergency because of the spreading virus.

American said its decision was informed by the State Department advisory. The union representing the airline’s pilots had sued American on Thursday, seeking an end to the flights, citing “known and unknown risks” in its lawsuit.

Bear in mind that this will be a very costly interruption for both airlines. They will lose millions of dollars on those routes, and the gap might leave an opening for other international carriers to fill them. The US has not ordered a halt to travel that would bar other airlines from arriving from China, leaving the airlines at least hypothetically exposed for significant long-term losses. At least, the US has not yet imposed a travel ban, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

China responded angrily to the State Department warning, calling it “neither factual nor appropriate,” noting that WHO actually recommended against travel restrictions for now:

Beijing on Friday sharply criticised the United States for warning American citizens to avoid China and for urging those already there to leave due to the coronavirus health emergency.

“Certain US officials’ words and actions are neither factual nor appropriate,” China’s foreign affairs ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said in a statement.

“Just as the WHO recommended against travel restrictions, the US rushed to go in the opposite way. Certainly not a gesture of goodwill.”

Perhaps not, but it’s in large part a reaction to China’s lack of transparency and urgency at the start of the outbreak. The numbers being reported in Western outlets are generally those that Beijing is releasing, but there’s some question as to whether they’re telling the full truth about the spread of the WuFlu. Without reliable independent numbers, it’s very tough to assume that a travel restriction won’t be necessary, especially since it’s the obvious way to limit transmission of the disease into the US.

It might not be the last gesture in that direction, either. The Washington Post reports this afternoon that Donald Trump might order a full travel ban to China until the outbreak subsides:

The White House could announce even tighter travel restrictions to and from China as soon as Friday in response to the growing threat posed by the coronavirus, three senior administration officials said.

Tighter restrictions, or even an outright ban on all China travel, could formalize and broaden individual announcements that multiple airlines have already made. A number of lawmakers have been pressing the White House to make an announcement immediately.

The announcement could come by President Trump as soon as Friday afternoon, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to reveal internal deliberations. The officials stressed that no final decisions had been made and that restricting travel is one among a series of options under consideration for how to respond.

Trump might be inclined to go that far to protect US airlines from competitive losses. If other carriers stop service, it might be less necessary, but China’s own airlines are still operating, as CBS Los Angeles reports today. It seems that not even the risk of catching the coronavirus is stopping the tourist trade:

That’s not a problem … as long as they’re willing to be quarantined when they come back. Don’t gripe when that happens, and it’s a deal.