Public Health

Airlines Urged to Keep Flying in West Africa Amid Ebola Outbreak


A Nigerian port health official uses a thermometer on a worker at the arrivals hall of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, on Aug. 6

Photograph by Sunday Alamba/AP Photo

A Nigerian port health official uses a thermometer on a worker at the arrivals hall of Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos, on Aug. 6

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has reached crisis proportions but poses no particular risk to air travelers, according to health officials and airlines—and air service should continue to serve affected areas to help combat the disease. That’s the message the International Air Transport Association, a trade group for global airlines, is pressing, bolstered by the World Health Organization, which says there’s no need for travel bans over the virus.

“Ebola is a terrible disease, but it is not easy to contract,” IATA’s vice president for Africa, Raphael Kuuchi, said today at an aviation conference in Johannesburg. “It can only be caught through contact with bodily fluids. It is almost impossible to be infected by someone on a flight.”

Researchers believe the virus cannot be transmitted through the air. “Because the risk of Ebola transmission on airplanes is so low, WHO does not consider air transport hubs at high risk for further spread of Ebola,” Dr. Isabelle Nuttall, director of WHO Global Capacity Alert and Response, said in an Aug. 14 news release.

Nevertheless, Kenya Airways plans to suspend (pdf) its flights to Liberia and Sierra Leone on Tuesday, following similar decisions by Emirates Airlines, British Airways (IAG:LN), and several African carriers. Korean Air Lines (003490:KS) has also halted its flights to Kenya, and several African nations have imposed bans on travel to or from the four countries hit by the epidemic. Air France-KLM (AF:FP) and Brussels Airlines, part of the Deutsche Lufthansa (LHA:GR), are continuing their regular flights to the region.

Of course, it’s easy enough to array medical facts about a fatal disease with no cure or vaccine but quite another thing to persuade people they should carry on with their normal business and leisure trips to the region, where more than 1,100 people have died and nearly 2,000 cases have been reported in Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria over the past five months. A Nigerian woman suspected of having the virus died Sunday in Abu Dhabi while traveling to India for cancer treatment, the Associated Press reported today.

The reality is that there may not be much business to serve even if flights are continued. A spokeswoman for British Airways, Michele Kropf, said the airline consulted “a range of information sources” before announcing its flight suspensions to Liberia and Sierra Leone. “Having assessed all the information available to us we have made a decision to temporarily suspend our flights,” Kropf said in an e-mail.

Bachman is an associate editor for Businessweek.com.

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