Emirates to cut passenger flights to 13 destinations over COVID-19

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Long-haul carrier Emirates said Sunday it has dramatically cut its passenger flight destinations from 145 locations to just 13 countries. It’s a pivotal move that reflects the dramatic slowdown in traffic through the airline’s hub in Dubai, the world’s busiest international airport, due to disruptions caused by the coronavirus.

The state-owned carrier said it will keep flying to the U.S., the U.K., Japan, Australia and Canada, among a few other select destinations. The company had just hours earlier announced a suspension of all passenger flights, but said it reversed that decision after receiving requests from governments and customers to support the repatriation of travellers.

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The United Arab Emirates, which is home to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, has all but closed its borders to travellers with exceptions for those transiting through or for returning Emirati citizens.

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The state-owned carrier said it will continue to operate cargo flights through its fleet of Boeing 777 freighters for the transport of essential goods, including medical supplies across the world. It also said the company would reduce salaries for the majority of its employees for three months, but will not cut jobs.

Airlines around the globe have greatly reduced their capacity in response to the pandemic and travel regulations. Many carriers are struggling to cover their costs and pay salaries with their fleets grounded and countries shutting their borders to travellers.

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Only a handful have completely suspended flights, such as Royal Jordanian, which is conducting only cargo flights to comply with government regulations and entry bans. Panama’s Copa Airlines announced Saturday that it has suspended all of its flights until late April. Austrian Airlines also terminated its regular flights this week on a temporary basis.

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But some suspensions are permanent, given the drop in demand: Trans State Airlines, which had already planned to close by the end of the year, will cease operations in April because of the impact of coronavirus.

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In the Middle East, airlines have lost more than $7 billion in revenue as of March 11, according to the International Air Transport Association. The group says 16,000 passenger flights have been cancelled in the Middle East since the end of January.

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Emirates said in a statement it has tried to maintain passenger flights “for as long as feasible” to help travellers return home amid all the travel bans, restrictions and lockdowns.

Emirates Group CEO and Chairman Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum had said in an initial statement Sunday that the company found itself in a situation where it “cannot viably operate passenger services until countries re-open their borders and travel confidence returns.”

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He described the situation as “an unprecedented crisis” and said “the world has literally gone into quarantine” due to the virus and the illness it causes, called COVID-19, which has infected more than 300,000 people around the world.

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Most people only experience minor flu-like symptoms and recover within a few weeks, but the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by those who appear well. It can cause severe illness, including pneumonia and even death in some patients, particularly in the elderly and those with underlying health problems.

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Al Maktoum said the company was doing well financially at the start of the year, but the impact from the virus “has brought all that to a sudden and painful halt over the past six weeks.”

Emirates Group, which also operates an airport ground services company called dnata at locations around the world, had previously urged employees to take paid and unpaid leave. Basic salaries for the majority of Emirates Group employees were being reduced for three months, with cuts ranging from 25-50 per cent.

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The company said employees will continue to be paid other allowances during this time. Junior-level employees would be exempt from the basic salary reduction. The president of Emirates, Tim Clark, and the president of dnata, Gary Chapman, will take a full basic salary cut for three months.

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Emirates posted profits in its most recent fiscal year of $237 million, down from $762 million the year before. The airline’s aggressive expansion and growth helped transform its hub at Dubai International Airport into the world’s busiest for international passengers. Emirates carried around 58 million passengers last year.

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