Saturday, April 26, 2003

Comair: SARS alerts cause some travelers to Toronto to stay home

By James Pilcher
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The recently issued travel advisory to Toronto because of an outbreak of SARS has put somewhat of a chill on travel to Toronto, according to Comair, the local regional airline with a major commitment to Canada's biggest city.

Erlanger-based Comair, which operates seven flights a day to Toronto from its hub at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, reports that it has seen a decline in advance ticket sales to Toronto over the past few weeks. It acknowledged that the drop could get worse now that the World Health Organization has issued a travel warning to the city.

There have been 140 cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome confirmed there, including 15 deaths.

"We recognize that this situation is very dynamic, and we will respond accordingly," Comair spokesman Nick Miller said.

Comair, a subsidiary of Delta Air Lines, carries Delta passengers to Toronto from Cincinnati and is Delta's only link between the Canadian metropolis and its second-largest hub here.

Miller would not provide specifics on the drop in bookings, saying some might be from the lingering effects of the war. He added that the airline had not seen a rash of cancellations since the WHO warning on Wednesday.

Comair also is waiting on official word from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before canceling any flights, Miller said. The CDC has not issued any such travel warning or advisory to Canada, as has the WHO.

Many airlines have seen drastic drop in travel because of the SARS outbreak, especially to the Far East. Many corporations have banned travel overseas to China, a survey of Fortune 500 companies earlier this week found.

In the survey, the Business Travel Coalition reported that 61 percent of 137 companies surveyed had instituted such a ban, up from 27 percent April 1. The survey did not ask about trips to Toronto, but USA Today reported that many companies, including Lucent Technologies, are beginning to bar travel there as well.

The auto industry has several key plants in Ontario, including Ford and DaimlerChrysler.

Images of planes isolated by local health officials who suspected a SARS victim could be aboard haven't helped. That happened again this week when a Northwest flight was detained in San Francisco, although the passenger checked out fine.

Airlines have been implementing safety procedures on flights overseas to Asia and to Toronto. They have been isolating any passengers who show symptoms of the respiratory virus as well as issuing flight crews rubber gloves and medical masks.

Miller would not get into specifics on such procedures on Comair flights but said that the regional jets used on the route use 100 percent fresh air, compared with the mix of recycled air used on larger jets.

Friday, Delta chairman and chief executive officer Leo Mullin also said the airline is taking special precautions with its lone route to Asia (a daily flight between Atlanta and Tokyo), including special cleaning and spraying of the plane involved.

Toronto officials have reacted angrily to the WHO's travel advisory.

"If it's safe to live in Toronto, it's safe to come to Toronto," Mayor Mel Lastman said at a news conference there Wednesday.

USA Today contributed to this report.


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