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Fear of flying: All we have to fear is fear itself October 2014 Download PDF

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Many airline passengers are terrified of flying. It takes very little to upset confidence to the point that the passenger decides that flying is just too much hassle. In 2003 the SARS epidemic originating in China had a significant impact in Asia and North America. Now, in 2014, we have an outbreak of an horrendous haemorrhagic disease from the Ebola virus.

In 2003 the impact from SARS on the aviation industry was dramatic. It was a viral respiratory disease that was highly infectious and transmitted easily through airborne droplets. The confined spaces of an aircraft fuselage seemed to provide limited or no protection against the spluttering sneezes of fellow passengers in the early stages of the disease and air transport's very nature helped to disseminate it round the world. A large part of the outbreak involved the source in China and related travel through Hong Kong and throughout SE Asia — and people stopped travelling out of fear. At the depths of the crisis passenger demand among Asian airlines had fallen 50% year on year in RPK terms (see chart below). The total number of confirmed SARS cases according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) was just over 8,000 with a mortality rate of just under 10%. According to some estimates this had an impact of reducing global GDP growth in 2003 by ten basis points.

This time round we have an outbreak of a particularly nasty haemorrhagic virus in West Africa — Ebola. In this case the disease is highly contagious, but not particularly infectious, transmitted through contact with bodily fluids of those infected or deceased as a result of the infection. The likelihood of contagion on board an aircraft in these circumstances is highly unlikely — the contagious body is likely to be so ill as to make it exceedingly unlikely that he or she would be able physically to board the aircraft. So far there have been just over 13,000 confirmed or suspected infections and just under 5,000 deaths.

So far there has been little real reaction from the travelling masses. International passenger demand according to IATA figures may have been modestly affected (see chart below) on a localised basis --- but then African aviation only accounts for 4% of total air traffic demand.

Certainly some carriers have cancelled operations, particularly to the most affected areas of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, while some countries have imposed travel restrictions and passenger screening at border controls.

However, when an Ebola case was confirmed in the USA at the end of September — and then two further cases of local infection — there has been a bit of a panic, particularly in the US. The typical knee-jerk reaction of the stock markets was to extrapolate an effect on global aviation and to knock airline share prices by 5%.

Meanwhile, a recent survey in the US suggested that 40% of respondents now believed that there would be a major outbreak of Ebola in the US and that a quarter of respondents worry that someone in their immediate families will be infected within the next year.

SARS Impact
Impact on 2003 GDP
Cases Deaths % US$ bn
China 5,327 349 -1.05 -14.8
Hong Kong 1,755 299 -2.63 -4.1
Taiwan 346 37 -0.49 -1.4
Singapore 238 33 -0.47 -0.4
Others 109 11
North America
Canada 252 44 -0.60 -4.7
US 27 0 -0.07 -7.6
Europe 33 1
Others 10 1
World total 8,097 775 -0.10 -33
Source: WHO, IATA
Ebola impact
Cases Deaths
Guinea 1,906 997
Liberia 6,535 2,413
Sierra Leone 5,235 1,500
Mali 1 1
Nigeria 20 8
Senegal 1 0
Spain 1 0
USA 4 1
Total 13,703 4,919
Source: WHO 29 Oct 2014
SARS 2003 -- International passenger demand
SARS 2003 -- International passenger demand Produced by GNUPLOT 4.6 patchlevel 3 -60 -50 -40 -30 -20 -10 0 10 20 Mar 2003 Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Jan 2004 Feb Mar RPK y-on-y %ch 2003-2004 gnuplot_plot_1 gnuplot_plot_2 gnuplot_plot_3 Total Asia/Pacific North America

Source: IATA

Ebola 2014 -- International passenger demand
Ebola 2014 -- International passenger demand Produced by GNUPLOT 4.6 patchlevel 3 -4 -2 0 2 4 6 8 10 Sep 2013 Oct Nov Dec Jan 2014 Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug RPK y-on-y %chg 2013-2014 gnuplot_plot_1 gnuplot_plot_2 Total Africa

Source: IATA


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