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Coronavirus Fears Lead To Canceled Flights

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Across the country and around the world, flights are being canceled. Trade shows are being called off. Businesses are restricting employee travel - all due to fears related to the spread of the coronavirus. As NPR's David Schaper reports the travel industry is beginning to suffer from a slowdown that could cost billions.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Forty-six billion dollars a month. That's what the global travel industry stands to lose if coronavirus fears continue to lead corporations to pull sales staff, consultants and other employees off the road and if leisure travelers continue to cancel weekend getaways and destination vacations. Airlines in particular are already feeling deep pain.

JOE SCHWIETERMAN: We're seeing buyer apprehension - not only international but for, you know, cruise businesses, even summer trips. People are kind of hedging their bets.

SCHAPER: Joe Schwieterman teaches about the travel and transportation industries at Chicago's DePaul University. He says airlines with routes to Asia and China in particular are seeing business screech to a near halt. And bookings are down to other international destinations, too. Even domestic travel is significantly slowing, with the cancellation of big trade shows, including the huge annual housewares show in Chicago that was expected to bring 60,000 people here.

SCHWIETERMAN: These big shows are our lifebloods for the big cities.

SCHAPER: Again, DePaul University's Joe Schwieterman.

SCHWIETERMAN: And you take that away, and, you know, there's a lot of places that are financially right on the edge right now. And it's going to create some severe pain.

SCHAPER: Several airlines are revising their financial outlook for the year. And it now may be difficult to turn a profit. And while there haven't been any layoffs yet, pilots, flight attendants and other airline workers could lose pay while the planes they would be flying sit on the ground.

SCOTT SOLOMBRINO: The last time we saw this was 9/11.

SCHAPER: Scott Solombrino is executive director of the Global Business Travel Association.

SOLOMBRINO: But that was a complete shutdown of travel. Thank God we're nowhere near that.

SCHAPER: But Solombrino says if this travel slowdown continues or gets worse, the cost to the global economy would be staggering. He says the travel industry is the largest employer in the world. And if coronavirus fears continue to keep people home, the industry could lose more than a third of its income. That's close to $560 billion for the year. And Solombrino says while there are legitimate concerns over travel to China, Italy and a few other places, there are no travel restrictions yet in place in the U.S. and to and from many other countries.

SOLOMBRINO: So what we're trying to tell people and message people is that, look. Travel is still safe. Take the normal precautions that you would take. Wash your hands. Don't be coughing on people. Try to be diligent when you're traveling. But we don't see any reason why people wouldn't be traveling certainly domestically.

SCHAPER: Nonetheless, the media coverage of the spreading coronavirus both here and abroad has travelers worked up.

TAMMY LEVENT: Everyone's freaking out. Oh, my God. I got to cancel my plans, my trip, my this, my that.

SCHAPER: Tammy Levent is CEO of Elite Travel and says her phone is ringing off the hook and her email inbox overflowing from worried clients.

LEVENT: Travel agents have to become psychiatrists, OK? We have to be therapists for all these people that call in.

SCHAPER: But Levent says she's been able to talk most of her clients out of canceling their plans.

LEVENT: I've had one cancellation in all of our thousands of clients, which was to Japan.

SCHAPER: While airlines are allowing customers to cancel or change flights to some destinations without charge, Levent says those with tickets to destinations where there are no travel restrictions will likely pay the full penalty if they cancel. And regular travel insurance may not help. Only cancel-for-any-reason policies will allow you to get your money back. Still, many of those who are flying this week don't seem worried. Arriving in Los Angeles from Germany, 34-year-old Adrian Schmetz says he thinks the media is overhyping the coronavirus danger.

ADRIAN SCHMETZ: It's not going to affect my choice of travel at all.

SCHAPER: But LAX parking attendant Myla Maramba worries that a bigger travel slowdown could lead to a cut in hours or layoffs.

MYLA MARAMBA: It's going to affect a lot of people's livelihoods.

SCHAPER: And that's certainly true, as the tentacles of the travel economy reach into the pockets of millions around the world.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.