Europe airlines plan for bird flu

European-based airlines are drawing up plans to ground airplanes in the event of a bird flu outbreak in Europe. They are also installing diseases protection supplies on aircraft.

The Asian SARS epidemic two years ago is helping airlines learn how to deal with an outbreak. This includes training personnel on how to respond, while other airlines are installing masks, goggles and gloves on planes.

“Contingency planning was instigated nearly a year ago to look at our operational and commercial response should avian flu result in a human flu pandemic,” a spokesman for British Airways told the Reuters news agency.

“We are liaising closely with both governmental and health organisations.”

To date there has been no recognisable change to passenger’s travel plans following outbreaks of the H5N1 strain of bird flu in poultry farms across the European Union.

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European airlines are stressing that the latest measures are precautionary. Air France, Lufthansa and Iberia are also working with governments on contingency plans. Airlines declined to give Reuters details, although most expect to ground large numbers of flights in the wake of an outbreak.

“Running an airline means managing risks. Our advantage is that we are able to ground aircraft without losing money because we buy them and write them off,” Lufthansa Chief Executive Wolfgang Mayrhuber said in a speech in Singapore this week.

The risk of coming across someone on board a plane with bird flu is almost non-existent, according to Professor Uwe Stueben, head of Deutsche Lufthansa’s medical service, since cabin air filters remove bacteria and viruses.

IATA - the world airline body—is now working with the World Health Organisation on guidelines for airport staff, cabin crew and cleaners so that health risks are minimized. They are also looking at wider tactical plans if bird flu reaches outbreak status.

IATA explained that the global aviation industry has never been better prepared for a potential epidemic.

“When SARS occurred no one was talking about it six months or a year in advance, there were no plans in place. It may never evolve into a public-health issue but regardless of that we are miles ahead in the planning than we were for SARS,” IATA spokesman Anthony Concil said.

A bird flu epidemic could be a disaster for carriers across the globe. The entire industry is still recovering from the impact of SARS and global security fears following the Sept. 2001 attacks in New York.
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