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Aviation, travel industries count cost of coronavirus outbreak

Passengers arriving from China are scanned by a thermal sensor at Incheon Airport on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
Passengers arriving from China are scanned by a thermal sensor at Incheon Airport on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

South Korean aviation and travel industries have been hit hard by refunds and cancellations in response to the new Chinese coronavirus outbreak, according to the industry on Tuesday.

Several airlines have suspended the operation of routes to China and fully refunded customers for reservations, without applying the usual surcharge. 

The travel authorities and related businesses have also strengthened hygiene guidelines for their employees, such as obligating all cabin crew on flights and workers in duty-free stores to wear masks.

On Tuesday, Asiana Airlines’ low cost carrier Air Seoul said it would temporarily halt all services to China, including the Incheon-Zhangjiajie and Incheon-Linyi routes.

“We decided to temporarily suspend the operation of Chinese routes considering the seriousness of the coronavirus infection and for the passengers’ safety,” Air Seoul said in a statement. 

It is the first airline here to halt all services to China.

The air carrier has been flying flights to Zhangiajie three times a week and to Linyi twice a week. 

Following the Transport Ministry’s decision Thursday to suspend all Incheon-Wuhan flights until the end of January, Korean Air and T’Way said they had stopped their operation of flights to Wuhan until Jan. 31 and late February, respectively. 

Other air carriers are reportedly reviewing whether to suspend additional Chinese routes out of concern. 

“As the situation is urgent, it is possible for air carriers to add to the Chinese routes subject to suspension, despite the routes’ profitability,” an industry insider told The Korea Herald.

While Jeju Air said it has suspended operation of Busan-Zhangiajie and Muan-Zhangiajie routes, Eastar Jet has also decided to halve its operation of the Cheongju-Zhangiajie route. 

For passengers’ convenience, airlines said they also decided to fully refund passenger’s tickets to China, without any charge. 

The country’s major airlines Korean Air and Asiana Airlines, as well as budget carriers Jeju Air, Eastar Jet, Jin Air, T’Way, Air Busan and Air Seoul said they were offering full refunds on tickets to China or exempting all fees for destination or schedule changes.

Chinese air carriers that operate routes to Korea -- China Southern Airlines, China Eastern Airlines, Air China -- have also decided to cancel all charges for ticket refunds. 

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific said it would also exempt fees for ticket refunds or route changes for flights arriving or departing China before Feb. 29. 

Meanwhile, the country’s major travel agencies such as HanaTour and Mode Tour have said they are also waiving fees for cancellations of trips to China. 

Reservations for up to 3,000 people per agency have been cancelled, industry insiders said, despite the low reservation rate for trips to China in the off season. 

Other market insiders said due to the local customers’ concerns over staying at hotels where Chinese tourists frequently stay in Korea, up to 15 percent of reservations at a hotel in Jeju have been cancelled. 

The Transport Ministry is also set to advise airlines to obligate cabin crews on all flights to wear masks, despite previous hesitation of such a measure further fanning anxiety, according to Yonhap News.

Currently, Air Jeju and T’way have allowed flight attendants on all the flights to wear masks while bigger airlines have selectively allowed them for those working flights connected to China and surrounding regions.

(Lotte Duty Free)
(Lotte Duty Free)

Duty free operators are also taking measures to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Lotte Duty Free created an emergency team on Friday and has ordered a set of response measures to be carried out by its employees, the company said Tuesday. 

Following the responsive measures, all employees are obliged to take their body temperatures every day, and anyone showing signs of fever would be sent home for medical checkup.

The company said it also has mandated all employees working in the duty-free stores to wear face masks, installed more hand sanitizers in the stores, and will also fumigate the stores twice a week. 

In addition, the company ordered all employees who visit China to take 14 days holiday after they return.

“Lotte Duty Free puts the safety of customers and employees as our priority, and we will come up with quick additional measures to deal with the changing situation,” Lee Gap, CEO of Lotte Duty Free said.

Shilla Duty Free also said it is running a task force to deal with the coronavirus. The company started operating thermal imaging cameras at the entrances of its headquarters, advised its employees to wear face masks and also provides masks to visiting customers. 

The duty-free operator said it would reinforce the daily disinfection process it conducts at least once a day, and designate times for all employees to take their temperatures twice a day.

By Kim Da-sol, Jo He-rim
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