Airlines brace for bird flu
in Airliner's Rudder System

but fears could be new blow to embattled airlines

November 1, 2005: 4:09 PM EST
By Chris Isidore, CNN/Money senior writer
President Bush detailing the government's plans Tuesday to combat the threat from bird flu.
President Bush detailing the government's plans Tuesday to combat the threat from bird flu.

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Bob Goldberg flies more than 150,000 miles a year on business, but his flight from Chicago to Singapore this Friday has him more nervous than most. The reason -- the threat of bird flu.

"Did it prompt me not to go? No, but it did raise a concern," said Goldberg, an international lawyer who is attending a meeting about a business venture there. "The meeting was originally set for Vietnam, and it was moved because they've had the outbreak there. If it hadn't been moved, I don't think I would have gone. And even though there hasn't been an outbreak in Singapore, we've had discussions about overseas travel."

The threat of a pandemic bird flu at this point is mostly hypothetical, but serious enough for President Bush to detail government preparations and propose a $7.1 billion plan to combat a potential outbreak.

And government agencies are not the only ones preparing for the threat of a disease that has the potential to kill millions around the globe and cripple commerce. Businesses are preparing for the worst case scenario, and the already-troubled airline industry is bracing in case fear of infection causes a sharp drop in travel demand.

The outbreak of SARS over nine months in 2003 is estimated to have cost the travel industry about $8 billion worldwide, even though that disease never reached pandemic status.

"Basically, travel to these affected regions, whether Toronto or Asia, came to a very quick halt," said Greeley Koch, president of the Association of Corporate Travel Executives. "At this point we have not seen anybody cut back in travel (due to risk of bird flu). But they want to be prepared, want to learn more."

Koch said a survey of his group's U.S. members found 26 percent have formed some kind of contingency plan to deal with a pandemic flu, and another 19 percent are looking into it. The group wants all its members to incorporate the threat from a pandemic into their disaster preparedness plans, and it has formed an Airborne Contagion Containment Task Force to help corporate travel managers prepare for the worst.

The Centers for Disease Control has set up quarantine stations at 11 major international airports, and it plans to have six more open soon. The stations are where passengers on incoming flights will be taken for evaluation, not for long-term treatment.

"The airlines are part of the overall surveillance network. We have a history of working with CDC to identify passengers who might be ill," said Katherine Andrus, assistant general counsel for the Air Transport Association, the U.S. airline industry trade group.

A colorized transmission electron micrograph of bird flu H5N1 viruses (seen in gold) are grown in MDCK cells (seen in green) as seen in this undated photograph from the the Centers for Disease Control.

Andrus said during the outbreak of SARS, more than 1,000 flights to the United States were met by CDC or local public health officials, although only a limited number of passengers suffering from SARS were found to be on the planes.

Bird flu has so far not been shown to pose a threat of person-to-person transmission like SARS, but it has proved to be far more lethal to those stricken with the disease, primarily in Asia.

Andrus said modern jets filter air through hospital-quality filters and exchange air in the plane more frequently than does a typical office building. But she says airlines are concerned not only about the threat of pandemic bird flu, but also a hit to air travel due to public fears about the disease.

"We realize there is a possible impact (on airlines) if public fears affect travel behavior," she said. "Right now we haven't seen that. There have been no recommendations to curtail travel. We're relying on authoritative sources like the CDC so the public can understand the risk or the absence of a risk."

But assurances will do little to maintain air travel, even among hard-to-scare business travelers, if there are reports of deaths of passengers, said Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, a trade group for business travelers.

"It's a little early to see the impact now. Companies are now just beginning to form committees. But there is a tension in a lot of companies," said Mitchell. "Until the headline reads 'Human-to-Human Transmission,' there's no reason to trigger those changes in travel policy. But if that happens, we could end up with a lot fewer airlines globally. I think as we see images of airport quarantine rooms, people will get message that flying isn't a good idea."

Goldberg said some of his clients and business associates are making plans to use video conferencing or other alternatives to travel in case of an outbreak. He said he's personally more nervous flying now than he was immediately after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

"Sept. 11 was an aberration, four planes out of thousands of planes," he said. "This is something you can contract from someone else on the plane and you don't know what the ramifications are going to be."

Still he's not sure that staying home will be a better option for him or other business travelers if there is an outbreak.

"Who knows where we're safe," he said.

For more news on the push for a bird flu vaccine, click here.

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Concern about a bird flu pandemic has airlines recalling SARS epidemic of 2002-03


November 2, 2005

Airlines and the trade associations representing them are taking steps these days to prevent the avian bird flu from becoming the next SARS panic, which wreaked havoc on the commercial aviation industry three years ago.

Faced with the frightening prospect of a pandemic - and the possible threat of government-imposed travel restrictions - airline executives and other industry leaders have in recent weeks set up lines of communication with the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as other federal health and safety agencies to head off the disease, or to keep it from spreading.

They are also posting advisories on Web sites and holding conferences to determine how to protect people at airports.

The airlines and the government have a huge task before them, experts say. They look back to the epidemic in 2002 and 2003 of the severe acute respiratory syndrome. During the height of the scare over SARS, airlines scrambled to find ways to assure passengers they were safe.

Nonetheless, Continental Airlines of Houston scrapped its five-times-a-week nonstop service between Hong Kong and Newark.

Northwest reduced capacity by 12 percent in March 2003 and canceled round-trip flights from Tokyo to Hong Kong and Osaka to Honolulu.

The impact of a pandemic would be worse.

"In the 40 years we've had jets as a mode of transportation, I don't think we've had a pandemic," said Alan Bender, a professor at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona, Fla. "Pandemic means it's everywhere. The last place people would want to be is sitting on an airline for three hours or waiting in lines or crowds."

Aside from the dangers posed to passengers and airline crews from a pandemic, there is business to worry about too.

Michael Boyd, president of The Boyd Group, aviation consultants in Evergreen, Colo., said yesterday that fears caused by the SARS epidemic that swept through Asia cut trans-Pacific passenger traffic by about 25 percent for some of the major carriers, primarily United and Northwest.

"The impact was huge," Boyd said, noting that people can forego face-to-face meetings in favor of electronic hookups. "When people get word of these things, they travel by e-mail. No one has ever gotten sick traveling by e-mail."

So far, airlines say, they have not noticed any large-scale cancellations because of the avian bird flu, known as H5N1, which erupted in Southeast Asia, where more than 140 million birds have died or been destroyed. World Health Organization officials said at least 62 people have died of the flu in Asia, but only by transmission from birds. There have been no reports of the flu strain being transmitted by humans.

Jennifer Bagdade, a spokeswoman for Northwest, which has more flights to Asia than most other Western airlines, said the carrier is paying close attention.

"Our medical director continues to monitor the avian flu with the CDC and other agencies," Bagdade said yesterday.

The Washington, D.C.- based Air Transport Association, a trade organization that represents most major carriers, has posted on its Web site ( a Q&A about avian flu.

Leah Yoon, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, part of the Department of Homeland Security, said the agency has the authority to detain at airports people or cargo suspected of being infected.

The Air Transport Association said there is a "heightened awareness" in the industry of the avian flu because of SARS. The organization also said it has been working with the Centers for Disease Control to improve ways of reporting illnesses aboard airplanes so that a CDC official could meet a plane to assess a situation.

"We are doing everything in our power to make sure we are prepared to the best of our ability," said Katherine Andrus, the association's assistant general counsel.

Resources for travelers

Department of Health and Human Services: travel/

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: 800-232-4636, World Health Organization:

from link