By Arjay L. Balinbin

LOCAL AIRLINES downplayed the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on their operations, saying there are no plans yet to reduce or halt flights to Chinese cities.

The coronavirus outbreak started in Wuhan, China, with the death toll rising to 132 as of Wednesday. Nearly 6,000 confirmed cases have been recorded, Reuters reported.

Budget carrier Cebu Pacific said it has stopped offering charter flights between the Philippines and mainland China, while Philippine Airlines is mulling a similar move.

“There are some [charter flights], but sa ngayon tinigil siya (these have been stopped) because of the current situation,” Cebu Pacific Director for Corporate Communications Charo Logarta-Lagamon said in a phone interview on Wednesday.

Cebu Pacific currently has 68 weekly flights from the Philippines to five cities in mainland China, namely Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Xiamen and Shenzen. It also has flights to Hong Kong and Macau, as well as the occasional charter from China to Kalibo and Cebu.

PAL Spokesperson Cielo C. Villaluna said in a phone interview late Tuesday that the flag carrier is now looking to reduce the frequency of its charter flights to China.

“What we are looking at is a possible reduction of our charters. We have charter flights from Nanjing to Kalibo, and Hangzhou to Kalibo. Ito ’yung mga flights na charters that we are studying the possibility of reducing,” she said.

PAL operates 69 weekly flights to and from China, namely Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Macau, Fujian and Xiamen.

Both airlines have advised passengers to postpone their flights if they feel unwell amid coronavirus outbreak. Passengers with flights to China are also given the option to rebook and refund their tickets until Feb. 29.

However, PAL’s Ms. Villaluna said the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on their operations is “not yet significant.”

“The reason why we gave them options to rebook and refund is because there is a clamor from a certain percentage, but nothing alarming. Not alarming, not massive, not considerable, but there is that present clamor for passengers to be given that flexibility to adjust their travel plans. But the fact that we continue to fly to these routes, we still have a considerable passenger base,” Ms. Villaluna explained.

Cebu Pacific’s Ms. Lagamon said the number of bookings that have been changed, whether rebooking or refund, represents “a little over 10% of the total number of bookings during the period (until Feb. 29).”

Global airlines such as Cathay Pacific, Asiana Airlines, Jeju Air, British Airways and United Airlines have announced the reduction of flights to China, as governments issue travel warnings.

However, PAL and Cebu Pacific said there are no plans yet to cancel flights to China, in the absence of a World Health Organization (WHO) declaration that the Wuhan coronavirus is a public health emergency of international concern.

“Until the World Health Organization declares that there is a global epidemic, then that’s the only time we will [consider flight cancellations]. Now it’s green and go, so we still have flights to and from China,” Ms. Villaluna said.

Shares in Cebu Air, Inc., operator of Cebu Pacific, slumped 4% on Wednesday, while shares in PAL Holdings slipped 1.35%.

Tourism is expected to be one of the sectors affected by the coronavirus outbreak, as China is a significant source of tourists for the Philippines.

The Bureau of Immigration on Tuesday stopped issuing visas on arrival to Chinese nationals, as a way to “slow down travel and possibly prevent the entry of the 2019 nCov (coronavirus).” The agency clarified there is no order banning Chinese nationals from entering the country.

Department of Tourism (DoT) data showed China was the second-highest source of foreign tourists from January to November last year, representing around 22% of the 7.5 million visitors to the Philippines.

“If we are to factor in the highly evolving issue of the novel coronavirus outbreak originating from inland China and the impact on tourism in the Philippine, there will definitely be a significant impact because of the recent lock down of Wuhan and other cities in China to prevent the spread of the deadly virus,”

Ruben Carlo O. Asuncion, chief economist at UnionBank of the Philippines, Inc., said in an e-mailed reply to questions.

Mr. Asuncion said a subsequent drop in arrivals from mainland China, as well as visitors from other countries that are wary about the coronavirus, can be expected.

“Since China is a close neighbor and there have already been confirmed cases already in many of China’s neighboring countries, plane travel and other forms of people movement will be immediately constricted. Thus, revenues from tourist travel and its other channels will take a hit,” he said.

Citing 2010 data from the Philippine Statistics Authority, Mr. Asuncion noted that the foreign tourist average spending per day was at $84.

“We are looking at a full potential estimated loss of about $126 million per day. This is maximum potential loss if all 1.5 million visitors from China do not come to the Philippines altogether… Nevertheless, the potential tourism impact is highly significant if the coronavirus outbreak continues and goes on to affect the movement of people,” he said.

The Department of Tourism, on the other hand, said it is “optimistic that Philippine tourism will remain resilient.”

Meanwhile, Trade Secretary Ramon M. Lopez told reporters on Wednesday that Philippine delegations will still attend trade fairs in China, and that export and import activities will continue.

“We don’t see any concern… of course we will avoid Wuhan. And then for all those visiting (from China), pinapa-check namin ngayon (we are having that checked)… We just do the necessary precaution,” he said.

DTI has no plans to cancel participation in trade expos in China this year.

“We are ‘business as usual’ with some extra caution,” Mr. Lopez said.

China is the Philippines’ largest source of imports, based on data from the Philippine Statistics Authority. The Philippines imported $22.56 billion worth of goods from China in the first 11 months of 2019, or 22.7% of total Philippine imports. — with Jenina P. Ibañez