Cabin crew from Cathay Pacific walk through the terminal at Hong Kong's international airport on March 10, 2018. ( MIKE CLARKE / AFP)
SYDNEY — Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd will allow all crew members and frontline employees to wear surgical masks due to concerns over a new coronavirus, and said passengers to and from Wuhan, China, could change or cancel flights for free through Feb 15.
The airline had earlier said only cabin crew operating Chinese mainlandflights could wear masks, in response to the airline's flight attendants calling for permission to wear masks on all flights globally as cases have also been confirmed in the United States, Thailand, South Korea, Japan.
On Tuesday evening, its website said with immediate effect, rebooking, rerouting and refund charges would be waived for all tickets arriving to or departing from Wuhan through Feb 15
"Due to the evolving information from health authorities, we will allow crew members and front-line airport employees to wear surgical face masks when on duty at their discretion," Cathay said in a statement.
The coronavirus outbreak, which began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, struck as millions of Chinese prepared to travel for the Lunar New Year, heightening contagion risks.
It poses a fresh threat to demand for the airline, which has been battered by months of protests stemming from the now withdrawn extriditon bill in Hong Kong.
The Cathay Pacific Airways Flight Attendants Union said it had received a “tremendous” amount of emails and messages from members concerned over catching the virus given they are exposed to over 300 passengers from numerous places on a single flight.
“All of them are worried about the risk they are taking every time they go to work,” the union said on its Facebook page on Tuesday. “It is time for the Company to properly address their concerns and allow Cabin Crew to wear masks on all flights.”
Cathay said on Wednesday it had told crew they could use their discretion and choose to wear a surgical mask while operating on Chinese mainland flights.
On Tuesday evening, its website said with immediate effect, rebooking, rerouting and refund charges would be waived for all tickets arriving to or departing from Wuhan through Feb. 15.
China’s aviation regulator on Tuesday evening told mainland carriers to refund or change flights to Wuhan without charge at the request of passengers, which analysts at Daiwa said had affected more than 24 airlines.
READ MORE: HK residents urged not to visit Wuhan
Some other travel firms are also allowing free cancellations on bookings to Wuhan.
Authorities have confirmed more than 400 cases of the virus in Chinese mainland, mostly in Wuhan where authorities on Wednesday said nine people had died. The disease has spread to other parts of the country, including five cases in capital Beijing.
Hong Kong reported its first case of the new coronavirus on Wednesday, local media said.
CATHAY'S VIRUS FRONTLINE
Cathay said that as required by the Hong Kong health authorities, it was distributing health declaration forms and will be making face masks and antiseptic wipes available at the boarding gate to passengers travelling from Wuhan to Hong Kong.
Cathay has already been hit by plummeting demand as a result of social unrest in Hong Kong
"Our frontline staff are reminded to maintain good personal and environmental hygiene, and to remain alert and vigilant while being on the lookout for passengers presenting with infectious disease symptoms," the airline said.
Cathay has already been hit by plummeting demand as a result of social unrest in Hong Kong, leading it to cut capacity and defer the delivery of four planes.
Shares in Cathay have fallen by 10% since the start of January as the virus has spread.
Jefferies analysts said shares in Cathay and Chinese mainland carriers could remain under pressure for some time if the coronavirus situation paralleled the 2003 SARS outbreak and cases continued to increase.
That coronavirus outbreak killed nearly 800 people.
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