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Coronavirus panic prompts Air Canada to cancel all flights to China

Carrier operates 33 flights per week to the country hardest hit with the fast-spreading fatal disease
Air Canada is the carrier with the most flights out of Vancouver International Airport | BIV files

What happened: Air Canada has cancelled all flights between Canada and China in response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Why this matters: Reduced access to air travel could hurt the economy, particularly the hospitality sector.

Air Canada, which operates 33 flights per week to the country hardest hit with the coronavirus outbreak announced January 29 it has cancelled all flights between Canada and China in response to the fast-spreading fatal disease.

Note: This story first appeared January 28 when Air Canada had only cancelled some flights between Canada and China. Since this time, Air Canada announced January 29 that it will cancel all flights between Canada and China starting January 30.

Air Canada flies non-stop between Vancouver and both Beijing and Shanghai.

Other airlines that have non-stop flights between Vancouver International Airport and mainland China include Air China, China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, Beijing Capital Airlines, Sichuan Airlines, Xiamen Airlines and Hainan Airlines. It is not yet clear whether the other airlines will also start cancelling scheduled flights.

The number of non-stop flights between Vancouver and mainland China has surged in the past decade, helping fuel the local economy.

“In response to the Coronavirus situation, we are cancelling select flights to China to better match capacity with expected demand,” Mah told Business in Vancouver in an January 28 email, the day before all flights to China were cancelled. 

At the time, she added, “the resulting capacity reduction is relatively small.”

The fast-spreading coronavirus, known as 2019-nCoV, has so far killed 132 people – all of whom were in China. The disease has sickened a total of 5,974 people in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and 14 other countries, including Canada.

Two confirmed cases of the disease in Canada are in Toronto, and are a husband and wife, both of whom together recently returned from a trip to Wuhan, China – the epicentre of the outbreak.

One case of the disease in B.C. was revealed this morning (January 28), although health officials are calling it a “presumptive” case because a federal lab in Winnipeg has yet to replicate a positive test result for the disease that a lab in Vancouver first achieved on January 27.

Health Canada has placed educational signage at Vancouver International Airport and it has added a question to customs kiosks to ask passengers arriving from all countries whether they have been to Wuhan, China in the past 14 days. It is not using temperature-screening devices that some airports in Europe and Asia are using. Canada's chief public health officer Theresa Tam has said that she does not think that temperature-screening devices are an effective way to control the virus. 

Canada is in the middle of flu season and many people who have fevers have diseases other than 2019-nCoV. And while Chinese officials have said that some people who are not yet symptomatic with 2019-nCoV may still transmit the virus, there is debate on that point. B.C.'s provincial health officer Bonnie Henry said January 28 that she does not believe transmission will occur before a person becomes symptomatic. 

Health Canada’s Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has placed at least one health-safety officer at Vancouver International Airport, according to the Vancouver Airport Authority.

PHAC officials have been vague about exactly how many of these officers they are placing at airports. BIV has been asking the agency since January 21, or one week ago, to say how many of these officers it has placed at airports.

PHAC said on January 27 that it would be increasing the number of those officials at airports but, again, it did not say how many additional public-health safety, or quarantine officers, it will place at airports.

CNBC reported January 28 that the U.S. is considering imposing travel restrictions on flights coming into the country from China. 

BIV on January 28 asked Transport Canada whether the Canadian government was similarly contemplating such action but did not immediately get a response. 

Air Canada is notifying customers who would have been on the cancelled flights so they can rebook, according to Mah.

“We continue to monitor the situation closely and will adjust accordingly,” she said.

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