Airlines battle Ebola fears

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U.S. airlines are worried that the Ebola outbreak will cause people to cancel their travel plans for fear of catching the virus on a plane or in an airport.

With their ticket sales at risk, industry officials are going into overdrive to try and reassure the public that flying is safe.

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“We think that air travel is totally safe, and people should keep getting on airplanes, if you look at the facts of how the disease is communicated,” Airlines for America President Nicholas Calio said Thursday at the International Aviation Club of Washington, D.C.

“Our members are working with CDC and the other agencies involved,” he added. “It’s obviously a difficult problem. Clearly people are alarmed at what’s happening.”

Concerns about Ebola grew last week, after Thomas Eric Duncan became the first person diagnosed with the virus in the United States.

Duncan, who died Wednesday, flew from Liberia to Dallas, with a layover in Washington, D.C.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) stress that Ebola is primarily transmitted through bodily fluids and say none of the people who flew with Duncan were at risk of infection.

But members of Congress are sounding the alarm, with some calling for flights to be banned from parts of West Africa, where the virus is rampant.

The Obama administration, meanwhile, has ordered a heightened screening process at five major airports to try and prevent the virus from again entering the country undetected.

The screenings, at Washington Dulles, John F. Kennedy, Newark Liberty, O’Hare and Hartsfield-Jackson international airports, will reach 94 percent of passengers who are arriving from the African nations that are battling Ebola, according to administration officials. 

Calio said he was glad the administration was attempting to calm public fears, but he declined to weigh in on the decision to take the temperature of passengers, as they offload from international flights. 

“In terms of additional screening, we’re going to leave that to the government agencies involved,” Calio said. 

Airlines have already taken a financial hit from Ebola, with their stock prices dipping 12 percent since September, according to the New York Stock Exchange's ARCA Airline Index. 

The average price of one airline share was $76.58 on Thursday afternoon, compared to an average of $87.70 on Sept. 9.

Public scares have battered airlines before. The 9/11 attacks, for instance, led to a prolonged downturn that forced many carriers into bankruptcies and mergers.

But fears of an infectious disease are new territory for the industry, and how it plays out is anyone’s guess.

“Whether there’s a lasting impact, I think that’s an open question,” Calio said. “It’s way too early to tell how people are going to react to it in the long term, how quickly this gets under control and what happens [next].” 

The airline industry had been enjoying a surge in business before the Ebola case.

U.S. airlines carried 373.2 million passengers in the first six months of 2014, according to federal statistics, up 2 percent over the same period in 2013. The figure included 49.7 million passengers who took international flights.

The airlines could take a major hit if Obama heeds calls to ban air travel from parts of West Africa.

A group of 27 lawmakers, including three Democrats, signed a letter on Wednesday urging Obama to ignore health officials and immediately halt flights from West African countries that are at the center of the outbreak.

“[The WHO] has no duty to protect the lives and well-being of Americans, as you do,” the lawmakers wrote. “Furthermore, it has utterly failed to stem the epidemic through its own action. The responsibility for this decision is yours, not theirs.” 

Administration officials have repeatedly said that canceling flights to Ebola-stricken countries would be counterproductive by hurting efforts to combat the deadly virus at its source. 

The lawmakers said they don’t buy that argument and accused Obama of attempting to “pass the buck” to organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO), which have advised against travel bans. Obama has said he would not ban travel, unless the WHO reverses its position.

The U.S. Travel Association has pushed back on the flight ban proposals, arguing they would be a “draconian” response.

"The Obama administration's Ebola response has thus far been thoughtful and measured, and has resisted the temptation for draconian overreaction,” Travel Association President Roger Dow said in a statement.

"Relevant agencies across the federal government deserve praise for the responsible, deliberative approach they have brought to this high-profile problem."

— Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.