American Airlines pilots sue to block China flights as virus unnerves crew

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A pilots union filed a lawsuit on Thursday seeking to immediately halt American Airlines US-China service, as cabin crews worldwide voiced unease about exposure to the rapidly-spreading coronavirus which has killed more than 170 people in China.

The Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots, cited “serious, and in many ways still unknown, health threats posed by the coronavirus.”

American, the largest US carrier, did not immediately comment on the suit, filed in a Texas court. The Fort Worth, Texas-based airline announced on Wednesday it would next month suspend flights from Los Angeles to Beijing and Shanghai, but continue flights from Dallas.

The World Health Organization on Thursday declared the coronavirus outbreak in China a global emergency as cases spread to 18 countries.

The lawsuit came as an increasing number of airlines stopped their flights to China. Air France-KLM, for example, suspended its Beijing and Shanghai flights after cabin crews demanded an immediate halt.

Others that have dropped mainland Chinese destinations besides Wuhan, the outbreak’s center, include British Airways and Germany’s Lufthansa. Wuhan is closed to commercial air traffic.

Virgin Atlantic also said on Thursday it would suspend its daily operations to Shanghai from Sunday for two weeks because of the safety of customers and staff and a declining demand for tickets, but would continue flights to Hong Kong.

Other major carriers have kept flying to China, but protective masks and shorter layovers designed to reduce exposure have done little to reassure crews.

Thai Airways is hosing its cabins with disinfectant spray between China flights and allowing crew to wear masks and gloves.

“I don’t think it’s safe at all even with gloves and masks, because you catch it so many ways, like your eyes,” said one flight attendant, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“My friends also feel unsafe and don’t want to fly,” she said. “When we fly, we don’t sleep a lot.”

Delta Air Lines and United Airlines are operating fewer China flights, with Delta offering food deliveries so crew can stay in their hotels.

Korean Air Lines Co Ltd and Singapore Airlines are sending additional crew to fly each plane straight back, avoiding overnight stays.

The South Korean carrier also said it was loading hazmat suits for flight attendants who might need to take care of suspected coronavirus cases in the air.

The outbreak poses the biggest epidemic threat to the airline industry since the 2003 SARS crisis, which led to a 45 percent plunge in passenger demand in Asia at its peak in April of that year, analysts said.

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