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British Airways joins Emirates in West African flight ban amid Ebola outbreak

British Airways joined Gulf carrier Emirates in scrapping West African routes in response to the deadly Ebola outbreak as most rival operators keep flying with heightened medical checks.

Emirates halted services to Conakry in Guinea at the weekend citing guidance from health authorities. British Airways said in a statement yesterday that it’s suspending flights to Sierra Leone and Liberia, the other states blighted by the epidemic, until Aug. 31 due to the “deteriorating public health situation.”

Among carriers with the greatest exposure to the region, Air France and Brussels Airlines – Deutsche Lufthansa’s main link there – are continuing flights while screening departing customers. Air France, which serves most West African nations, has imposed special rules for people boarding in Conakry and Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone.

“Passengers must fill in a questionnaire when entering the airport lounge,” the Paris-based carrier said in a statement. “They then have their temperature taken within the airport itself. They are only given their boarding card if no medical symptoms are present.”

The Ebola outbreak has infected at least 1,603 people since March, killing 887, the World Health Organization said in the latest update. Still, the Geneva-based body hasn’t issued a travel advisory on the disease and won’t before an emergency committee meeting due to start tomorrow, spokesman Gregory Hartl said.

Emirates, the world’s largest airline by international traffic, plans to assess its West African plans in light of feedback from the WHO and the U.S. government-backed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While the former has suggested the risk of visitors catching Ebola is minimal and that special screening isn’t likely to prove helpful, the CDC has issued a level-three warning against travel to either Guinea, Sierra Leone or Liberia.

Emirates, whose focus on inter-continental travel means tens of thousands of passengers change planes in Dubai each day, said that services which used to call at Conakry on the way to Dakar will now fly directly to the Senegalese capital, which sits outside the Ebola-afflicted zone.

Brussels Air, in which Lufthansa, Europe’s second-largest airline, has a 45 percent stake, is the only carrier from outside Africa that serves the three Ebola-hit nations, with flight-schedule data firm OAG showing the Belgian operator has about 2,000 seats on offer there between Aug. 4 and Aug. 10.

The airline is monitoring the situation in the three countries in close cooperation with the WHO and the Tropical Institute in Antwerp, as well as local authorities in Africa, spokeswoman Wencke Lemmes said. It has a combined 11 weekly flights to the three countries and 38 a week to Africa overall.

Air France said that its crews are conversant with procedures that apply when a passenger exhibits symptoms after boarding, with the customer to be isolated, given a face mask and directed to use a separate wash room.

Flight attendants must don gloves, use disinfectant gel, store waste in containers and make enquiries about other passengers who the person may have come into contact with. Parisian emergency services should then be alerted to meet the aircraft on touchdown.

British Airways, which flew to the African countries four days a week, said it will keep the suspended services under review. Customers are being offered options including re-booking at a later date or a full refund, the company said.

Delta Air Lines, the only leading U.S. carrier with its own operations to the Ebola-hit region, serving Liberia, said customers whose flights are delayed or canceled due to health checks will get a refund and that it’s also waiving fees for those wanting to change bookings, including connections to Freetown, Conakry and three locations in Nigeria.

The screenings are “a precaution, in response to reported viral activity,” the Atlanta-based company said.

In total, Conakry is typically served by 53 weekly flights, Freetown by 52 and Liberian capital Monrovia by 51, according to OAG data. Lagos in Nigeria and Dakar, to the east and west, are far bigger hubs, with 275 and 194 services respectively.

Lufthansa and KLM both said their closest destination to the Ebola zone is Lagos, so no route changes are due. Egyptair also has no direct exposure, though with services to Accra in Ghana, as well as Lagos, checks are to be carried out in Cairo to screen for Ebola, swine flu and Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus, or MERS-CoV.

Royal Air Maroc, which operates to Guinea and Liberia, said it would consider suspending flights only if the virus spreads in a noticeable way or afflicts a larger area, and that it’s content that screening regime is an adequate response.

“We cannot follow all airlines that suspend flights because we have to think of humanitarian needs,” RAM spokesman Abdelhakim Challot said by telephone of the Emirates decision to halt operations to Guinea. “Some people need this service. If airlines shut their flights the area will be isolated.”

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