Ebola outbreak: Virus fears hit airlines in the wallet

Share prices fall as tensions rise, and travellers to Madrid and Marrakech have contacted the travel desk of The Independent with fears

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The Independent Travel

The aviation world is watching the spread of Ebola with increasing alarm, as travellers’ fears about contracting the disease appear to hit bookings. After a nurse in Madrid contracted the disease, IAG - the airline group that owns Iberia of Spain and British Airways - saw its share price fall six per cent. easyJet, which carries millions of travellers to and from Spain, also suffered on the stock market.

The risk of the disease places airlines in a difficult legal position. While British Airways reserves the right to turn a passenger away if it “reasonably believes” their health presents a risk to others on the aircraft, legislation in some countries prohibits airlines from discriminating against a passenger with a disability - a term that includes a person with a communicable disease. 

At present the UK handles 40 flights a week from West Africa. Most are from Lagos to Heathrow, but there are also services from the Nigerian capital, Abuja, Accra in Ghana and Banjul in Gambia.

Under the Montreal Convention, which governs international flying, airlines are liable to pay compensation in the event of an accident, which includes transmission of a disease on board a plane.

The initial liability is around £100,000 per passenger, even if the airline is held to have acted responsibly. If negligence is proved, for example if the airline should have suspected the health risk, or failed to act appropriately once the risk became apparent, damages could be much higher. Passengers who are physically unaffected could submit claims for emotional distress.

Fears about the spread of Ebola are already proving disruptive to flight operations. A recent flight from Jamaica to Gatwick was delayed because a rumour spread among the passengers that someone with Ebola was on board. It turned out there was a Nigerian doctor on the flight, but he had not been to West Africa for three years.

Many individual travellers are also concerned. The travel desk of The Independent has been contacted by people booked to fly to Madrid and Marrakech who have expressed worries about their trips, and their right to cancel. British Airways, along with other airlines, says that normal cancellation conditions apply.